Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 16, No. 6, 2017
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Robert J. Lewis
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Bernard Dubé
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David Solway
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Lynda Renée
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Barbara Ehrenreich
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Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward







The sun beating down on the lonely strip of highway that stretched out like a tongue of white bacon sped through landscape more parched than rhino hide aching for the wet lips of rain. Everywhere the eye fell the terrain was scabbed and blistered with sores of blanched rock and scrub. Unlike the easy roll of the dunes that induce calm and pleasant thoughts, this knotty, strangled place looked like it had been subjected to the wrath of the cosmos -- a fitting punishment for the bipeds that had messed it up bad. And the postcard wasn’t helped by the forlorn presence of desiccated bush and uprooted cacti stumps that recalled the fallen limbs of luckless lepers for whom the miracles of modern medicine came too late. But all things considered, it felt good to be in the open space, out of sight of the species that never fails to turn my stomach. Or was I just looking into the mirror?

It was hotter than July, or hot enough to puff up a pancake on the dash board. My mouth felt like a wind duct in a flour processing plant. Which meant it was time for a six-pack.

In the tawdry light of the bar the rusty ceiling pipes looked jaundiced and bared flesh like yellow ivory.
The only blonde at the bar was fiddling with the slack of an inexpensive chain necklace resting on the rise of an ample bosom. A gold-plated carrot was snapped to one of the links. From time to time, she would lower the carrot like a bucket into the gaping well of her cleavage, teasing the sides of her breasts before drawing it up.

The bartender, an aficionado of custom-made jewellery, asked if she knew the name of the jeweller. "A Mr. Kellog," she answered in a voice that could have dried up a lake.

"I'll remember that," he said, with unaffected gravity, watching the carrot disappear. "This one's on me." He refilled her shot glass and then his own, sponging off the rest with a soggy towel.

The blonde looked bored and lonely, and indifferent to everything except the cigarette she was smoking down to the filter. From time to time, she would release a lazy smoke ring or two. It was obvious to a man of my considerable experience that she was looking for a long-term relationship. Less obvious was what I was looking for, other than the wherewithal to get from point A to point B without destroying the joint.

I had already belted back enough drinks not to care about rejection, which meant the time was ripe to make the move. Making it a point of honour of being groomed for every conceivable occasion, I reached for my comb that wasn’t there. So, I began to smooth back what was left of my once considerable mane with my fingers. I then lurched into the standing position. But the sudden altitude and thin air were more than my legs could handle and I could barely manage to support myself leaning over the table. Not as vain as I once was, I took a standing eight count and waited for the vertigo, which was rather enjoyable, to pass. When I figured I wasn’t going to pass out or puke, I downed my empty glass with calculated machismo, and avoiding the armies of the night crawling all over the floor, navigated unsteadily to the bar.

The bartender, beside whom Dustin Hoffman looked gigantesque, observed my approach with unconcealed displeasure as I spread my not so immodest hindquarters over the stool next to the blonde's for whose benefit he was now assuming a protective pose. It was debatable if the menacing look he threw me could have stopped a yawn. The respect I accorded him for his pains was to regard him like the insect he was until he turned away and resumed rinsing glasses.

When it came to women, I knew all the tricks. Long ago, I had learned that nothing excites a beautiful woman like sustained indifference. So I decided to completely ignore her for the time it takes to smoke a cigarette.

Within seconds of sitting down, the wonderful scent of her perfume caught me like a net. I felt like kicking in a stained glass window. Of course, I didn't want her to know that I had noticed her, so I pretended to act cool. A minute passed before I realized I was holding my breath. Which caused me to gasp and gulp in a huge draught of air. I must have reminded her of a blast furnace in its death throes, but she pretended not to notice.

Beads of sweat were collecting on my forehead. "No puking at the bar, buddy," barked the bartender, reproaching me with that self-righteous Jehovah Witness like look, while his busy eyes were committing to memory the shape of the blonde's spectacular breasts. I tried to think of a witty rejoinder.

"Don't worry, partner," I crooned in my most friendly baritone. "I wear disposable underwear." I was the only one who laughed.

It was gradually dawning on me that the woman hadn't so much as blinked since my arrival. She was so still she reminded me of a government employee at her job. If this was a war of cool, she was writing one hell of a script for herself, except she was poor actress. Until this very minute, I had never met a woman who could remain indifferent to me for the time it takes to show me her backside – or was that her back?

Another minute passed. And then another. We both sat there like wax statues on exhibition, trying to downplay the chemistry that was happening between us, but her wax was no match against my temperature rising.

A pink shoe with a burgundy bow slipped off her small foot onto the floor. It was the mother of all excuses. Quickly turning the small embarrassment to her advantage, she performed a flawless 90 degree quarter-spin in my direction, extended an elegant hand onto my cigarette pack and drew it towards her as if it were something inside a man's underwear. With tweezer-long, Mexican-red finger nails, she extracted one of the cylinders and leisurely inserted it between her lightly rouged full lips. I was still pretending to ignore her while fighting off a perspiration attack that made my ass feel like it was on display inside an aquarium.

She began rummaging in her purse for matches blondes never carry. Taking note of her distress, I had already thrust a hand into my jacket pocket when she inquired with unassuming candour: "Are you a male hooker?" She turned her blackberry dark eyes into mine and moistened her sensuous lower lip. It was the kind of look that could have brought the Sphinx back to life.

"You must be referring to the bartender," I gently growled, secretly thankful for the opportunity to put the dwarf in his place. "Pour the lady a drink, Jessica," I ordered.

"Is this animal bothering you?" seethed the bartender, his eyes firing bullets.

"It's OK, Wolf," she said in a reassuring, ambassadorial tone. "The gentleman meant no harm." I detected a slight southern drawl in her tongue and the scent of magnolia in her breath. And then I felt her eyes traveling up and down my body, a cartographer excited by the discovery of a formidable land mass. Allowing time for that sometimes precipitous journey, I continued to suck on my cigarette until my lips turned red from the heat.

Modesty notwithstanding, I was used to that kind of female attention. And while I was probably old enough to be the girl's father, and my erstwhile V-shaped physique had long ago been consigned to memory lane, I was certainly no stranger to a woman's craving and could pick and choose as I saw fit -- so long as I didn’t pass out or puke. But tonight, or was it already tomorrow, she was doing the picking, a reversal which wasn’t unrelated to her opening query and sense of mystery that clung to her like a see-through veil. Acknowledging a modest but promising testosterone rumble, I had to admit that this blonde had ‘gotten under my skin.’ – and I was hoping I would be able to return the favour.

Two drinks earlier, my state of inebriation had obliged me to reset my butane lighter. She was now coolly leaning her cigarette into a four-inch flame. "Thanks for the light," she purred, pinching the ends of her singed eyelashes. "Are you trying to tell me something about yourself?" Her voice was musky and damp, a wetland for serpents and exotic fruit. I could tell right away that she had a high IQ and a sense of humour, which meant we had a lot in common.

I decided to make some small talk before tying her to the proverbial male-ordered bedposts. "If I may be indiscreet, what's a gorgeous blonde doing sitting at a bar all by her lonesome?"

"I like your style" she responded in a drone that was about as exciting as the advancing second hand of a watch.

"You make words come easy," I drawled back.

She shifted her body around so her knees were almost touching my outer thigh. Her long naked legs, slightly parted, shimmered like amber in the light. Black velour shorts were cut into her crotch.

"Do I know you from somewhere?" she asked.
"Bangalore in the summer of ‘89?"
"I'm not that kind of girl."
"How about Bordeaux, 1987?"
"I don't work in places like that. And besides, I'm married."
"Married!" I repeated. The revelation presented an unexpected opening through which I could parley both an appreciation of her womanhood and acknowledgement of her marital status. "I envy your husband," I spoke truthfully.
"No you don't, Mr. Believe me, you don't." A flash of anger forked across her beautiful face. She took a deep drag from her cigarette and emptied her glass in one shot. "What kind of work do you do?"
"I used to be a private dick."
"I wasn't asking to see your anatomy. What do you do for a living?" Her delivery was flat, her eyes dead-pan. Couldn't figure her out for the life of me: a cross between Joan of Arc and Bridget Bardot.
"I'm a retired private detective," I repeated.
"A private detective," she mused, letting the slurred syllables roll off her lips like molasses. A mischievous glint flickered in her almond shaped eyes. "Maybe you could give me some advice on a personal matter -- if you're so inclined." She crossed her creamy legs and began to fluff her long, frazzled hair. With her slender arms above her head, her considerable breasts looked like they were going to pop out of her one-size-fits-all spandex.

Six months ago I had vowed never to take on another case. After twenty five years in the business, I was sick to death of dead bodies and providing solace to widows of crime bosses. Especially after the last case when the alleged widow's husband turned out to be alive and enraged. Natasha was her name, had disingenuously engaged my services with the purpose of making her husband more ‘responsive’ to her ‘needs.’ The hidden video camera that caught us making love on the kitchen table got the right response alright. The day after her husband viewed the cassette, he destroyed every breakable item in the house, put the scissors to his wife's entire wardrobe, flushed her jewellery down the toilet, and then put a contract on my head that sent me in hiding for three months until I read in the paper that Luigi, was his name, was ventilated by a twelve year old cocaine dispenser who mistakenly thought he was an under-cover cop. “What 12-year-old hasn't made a mistake in judgment?” argued his lawyer – successfully. The kid is now a hero in his school.

Since then, except for unruly ants and morning halitosis, I was enjoying my retirement, so I thought.

Presently, with that ‘wounded doe, life is treating me unfairly look’ in her sad eyes, and a body that could make a bishop weep, I decided there'd be no harm in hearing her out.

"So what's the problem, lady?" I began.
"You can call me Cat if you like."
"I'm not interested in your pets." I felt like telling her my name was Hamster Erectus.
"Before puberty I was called Catherine."
"So you’ve grown up," I observed, thinking the remark funny. She forgot to laugh.
"My problem isn't complicated," she resumed almost shyly. "My husband is missing." I was quick to notice her sensuous lower lip go limp.
"Since when?"
"A week ago yesterday."
"Have you notified the police?"
"Are you kidding. They're too busy selling raffle tickets."
"Do you love your husband?"
"When he's around."
"Lousy marriage?"
"I guess it hasn't been too hot lately."
"For how long lately?"
"About two months."
"When did you last have -- relations?"
"Two months ago."
"Two months ago!" I spluttered. It was enough just enough to contain my seed talking to her, much less lying in the same bed with her every night.
"What happened?"
"I don't know. He just seemed to lose interest in me. I did everything to please him. I bought sexy lingerie. I changed the lighting in our bedroom. I put on little shows for him. I even invited one of my girl-friends to help out, but nothing seemed to work."
"Do you think there might be another woman? Another man?"
"I doubt it. He was too busy with his work."
"Which is?"
"He's an organic rice representative."
"Ah hah. One of those virtuous vegetarians who thinks he's superior to us meat eaters?"
"Well. He hasn't touched meat in two months, if you know what I mean." She drew out the vowel in the word ‘meat’ to suit her purposes, and then recrossed her ivory smooth legs.
"Does he have any enemies?"
"Everybody seems to like him."
"What attracted your husband to the organic rice business?"
"When he discovered that regular rice is grown with hundreds of cancer causing pesticides and herbicides, he decided to make organic rice his calling -- and he's been on call ever since -- and I mean eighteen hours a day on call."
"How's his health?"
"He's in perfect health, Mr. . . . I didn't catch your name?"
"The name's Ax. Jack Ax. But everybody calls me Brick."

"My husband is in perfect health, Mr. Ax. You see, he’s a body builder and he keeps track of every morsel of food that goes into that beautiful hunk of a body of his. When he found out that commercial rice is sprayed with all sorts of toxins, he decided he was going to change things, make America healthy again. He now represents an association of organic rice farmers, and distributes information pamphlets to grocers and rice wholesalers, encouraging them to save the future of our nation’s children."

"No offense, but I personally think that’s all a bunch of baloney, which I might add is one of my all-time favourite foods. The health-food industry is nothing but a scam conceived to torment people like you and me into believing that we’re slowly poisoning ourselves; and then they charge triple the price for the same product now sold in fancy health stores with a fancy label. As far as I'm concerned, any food store that doesn't sell booze or bacon is no better than a hospital. And I'm dead serious when I say that I'd rather drink a quart of chicken fat for breakfast than be caught eating whole-wheat health bread." Cat sent her eyes wandering over my extensive body; and after sizing me up, declared in a sexy whisper: "I like a man who isn't afraid to live his convictions."

Pretending to ignore the compliment, I added: "All's I know is that I've been eating crap food everyday of my life and I'm as vital as the next . . ." The point I was trying to make suddenly stalled in the backed-up sludge of smokers phlegm I was obliged to quaff. I cleared my throat, backhanded the sweat off my brow, and changed the subject. "But I'll bet the Oriental rice importers aren't particularly happy with the negative publicity your husband has been stirring up."

A genuine look of distress came over Cat's lovely face. I wanted to take her in my arms and hold her, but I was so bombed I probably would have lost my balance or reminded her of a boa constrictor.

"You don't think they would . . ." She couldn't speak her worst fears.

"Now don't go jumping to conclusions, Cat. But it's an ugly world out there. I could tell you stories that would make your hair stand up on end, true stories that make head line news read like Walt Disney.

"What should I do, Mr. Ax?" she pleaded in a small, Barbie-doll like voice. She began dangling her vegetable pendant above her cleavage. "Would it be an imposition to ask you to help me?"

"I don't know," I said, imagining her long legs wrapped around my face. "I'm retired."

"But I do need your help, Mr. Ax. And this once wonderful city of ours that has become so dirty and unholy needs your help."

Cat’s argumentation was cogent, her perception of our times -- insightful. I knew I was licked. And I wasn't too proud to recognize a superior argument when I heard one.

"All right," I said, pretending she was twisting my arm. "But this one I'm taking one day at a time."

"Thank you ever so much, Mr. Ax. I mean Brick. You are a woman's gentleman. May I invite you to my place so I can show you pictures of my missing husband?"

"I'd love to see his picture," I lied, watching her lower the necklace into the warm space between her full breasts. She slid off the bar stool and gracefully slipped into her high heel shoe. I couldn't help to notice how her shorts were pulled tight between her shapely buttocks. My ass was so wet and sticky the bar stool lifted when I stood up.

The outside air was as swampy as my shorts. But at least it was clean air -- until I lit up a cigarette and unquietly released a string of flatus bubbles. If you haven’t figured it out by now, I don't put on airs for anybody, least of all myself.

Walking back to the car, the dank, vaporous night stuck to the skin like sap, and so did Cat. And I liked that. I liked it a lot. It made me feel twenty five pounds lighter, which would bring me down to two hundred and twenty five -- before breakfast and after a dump.

It had been raining hard all day. Pools of water lay in the streets, their black surface smooth and shiny, while the sweet smell of mud and rank vegetation hung in the air like soft drapery. We both filled our lungs and felt good, and then we got into the car. I stepped on the gas, and waited for the double-barrel carburetor to fill: a split-second later the car lurched forward like a projectile into the ominous night. And in this balmy, wet midnight, the trip to Cat's was like driving into the wreckage of an apocalypse. Beneath the ink-black sky and indigo-blue facades ran wet streets gashed with red and yellow streaks of car light. It was as if the city's entrails had been cut out and left there to bleed. On either side of the eerily deserted streets, the ominous shapes of gutted houses were hovering like ghosts collapsed over their wounds. Pouring in through the open window was the wet smell of ash from the razed lots. Sometimes a groan would pierce the night, or a shadow would emerge out of the darkness, or you'd hear what sounded like the scurrying of invisible feet on a forbidden mission.

No doubt an embarrassment to city councillors and a sore spot to most eyes, but somehow this place never failed to warm my heart. I loved South Central as much as I hated the Hills. South Central was the Mount Everest of America. It was the big one, and it took its toll. But from out of its ashes and anarchy, and the torn pages of beautiful and the damned whose fresh trail of blood touched the living to the quick, you could find real men, men who were willing to put their lives on the line, men who were willing to defend, this, the greatest country in the world. If nights like this reminded me of the jungles in Nam, it was only because a part of me was still there, the best part of me, the part of me that was willing to die for something much bigger than myself, and I was one big mother. It's no accident that to this day I still haven't met anyone from the Hills who isn't a wimp or a nerd.

"Is there any particular reason you're driving on the wrong side of the street, Brick?" Cat's sing-songy voice betrayed an unhealthy fondness for sarcasm. Of course, she would have no way of knowing that back-seat drivers and myself get along like Latin American dictators and the free press.

"Would you like to drive?" I proposed unsoftly. She quieted down right away, and then the creeping vine of a cool hand fell on my burning thighs, and her soft nose and even softer lips started nuzzling at my neck. The next four hours unfolded like a dream.

Cat's modest apartment was enhanced by soft blue light and an array of hanging plants that currents from the ceiling fan made sway like sea anemones. "It's not much," she said, "but it's home."

"It has soul," I said, and meant it.

She meant it too when she said: "I feel so sticky." With exaggerated show-girl swagger, she tossed her purse onto the sofa and winked naughtily. "I'm going to take a quickie . . .," here she paused for effect, "shower," She then slowly turned her back to me and unsnapped her spandex. I shuddered, glimpsing the sides of her ample breasts bursting free. She then slithered out of her shorts which she left on the floor. Wearing only a tantalizing G-string, I watched her glide to the shower.

In those few seconds before she drew the sliding doors together, a new world was revealed to me: the most spectacularly sculpted butt I had ever laid eyes on that immediately set off a series of small explosions in my groin. It was pure sex dissolved into flesh. The eye, the mind couldn't get enough of it. It was an ass that could rouse the dead, wobble the moon. It was saucy, sulky, audacious; its perfect shape and sassy thrust were provocations that caused such intense desire and lust in men, it was almost like pain. Before it, every man was reduced to an instrument of passion. And she knew how to work it.

Staring at the slow, saucy advance of her long legs into the shower, my entire body broke out into goose bumps. And then the faint odour of her delicious sex drifted into my nostrils. I closed my eyes and tried to calm myself, but to no avail. My lust was a raging bull charging toward her arched buttocks, and in no time my tongue was slurping and splashing about in the musky swamp of her sex. I couldn't get enough of the taste of raw oyster in my mouth and the briny sex dripping down her long legs. I wanted to drown there and be healed forever.

The fantasy was interrupted as Cat emerged dripping wet from the shower. She tossed her head to the side and shook her hair. Watching her full, firm breasts sway back and forth, I wasn't sure if I was having another alcohol-induced hallucination, or if God was offering proof of his existence.

Knowing all too well the effect of her anatomy on men, she turned around and stepped into her slippers which had the effect of pushing out her behind a bit so it seemed to pout. I was practically bursting with seed, staring at the dimpled buttocks voluptuously halved by a sensuous arc that ducked down and disappeared into the dark, wild moss of her gender. Turning around again while smoothing drops of water off her breasts, she requested in a low velvet whisper: "I want you to make love to me."

I looked behind me, thinking I hadn't noticed someone to whom she was friendly walk in. "And then I'll show you some photos of my husband," she added as an after-thought.

I remember following her trance-like into the bedroom, my hands engulfing her small, bewitching waist, she and I getting me out of my sticky clothes, and Cat buzzing like a Queen bee in heat for what could have been seconds or hours. I decided not to ask.

When I woke up, she was lying asleep on her stomach, her one knee drawn up, my cheek resting on the back of her thigh, about a foot away from her slightly parted buttocks. Before I could even contemplate a post-coitus snack, waves of heat and the funky smell of her sex wafted into my nostrils again, and in a matter of seconds I was ready to bore a hole through the earth’s crust.

Dispensing with the formality of a wake-up call, I drew myself up between her split thighs, and leaning into her raised rear-end, entered her as easily as an eel enters the water, and watched her ass start to spin like a pinwheel around my rod which was firing like a piston as she twisted and jerked in spasms -- just in time to receive another instalment of the best seed west of the San Andreas.

When I woke up for a second time, the pale, gray dawn of L.A. was creeping into the room like something sleazy and virulent. Cat was quietly flipping through photographs of her hunk husband.

I had to admit I felt pretty good about myself. But my kidneys were bursting. Excusing myself, I wobbled to the bathroom, and, lifting up the toilet lid watched a fat line of urine rush out into the bowl, mixing turbulently with the water. Like deflating balloons, I felt my kidneys relax. As the pressure to pee subsided, the straight line curved into an arc, and then a broken one. For some time I just stood there, listening to the trickle, watching the foam bubbles disappear.

"Don't you ever sleep?" I asked, returning to the bedroom.
"I've been asleep for two months," she answered testily, setting aside three 8 by 12 photos. "Take a good look at these. In fact why don't you take them with you. Maybe someone will recognize him."
"Isn't it a little early for that?"
"It wasn't too late for last night, was it?"
"I guess not." I lit up a cigarette. "Did you have a real orgasm?"
"I've never had an orgasm with any man except my father." Cat half yawned.
While the detective business prepares you for ‘almost’ everything, I wasn't quite ready for her ‘all in the family’ anecdote. I relit my cigarette.
"I was sexually abused from the ages of seven to eleven," she added by way of clarification.
"I'm sorry to hear about that," I commiserated.
"Don't be sorry. It was the best sex I've had in my life. I cried for months when the police came for him. Since then, nobody has been able to replace him.”
Like an impish school girl she drew the sheet up to her chin, and beamed her large, satin-doll eyes into my own, “but if last night was any indication . . .”

She left the sentence incomplete, an oversight my vanity was quick to supply.
"Where's your father now?" I inquired nonchalantly, trying to downplay an ego that was waxing giddy like a star-burst.
"Dead. He was killed prison. They thought he was a pervert so they cut it off and he bled to death."
"I think I’ll investigate your fridge if you don’t mind," suddenly inclined to change the subject.
"Be my guest. You'll find carrot juice, ginseng root and a tube of tofu mayonnaise.

She was telling the truth so I ordered an all-dressed pizza from an all-night pizza joint and ate the whole thing myself while Cat nibbled on a sea-weed stick. I then made some calls and arranged appointments with a grocer and couple of rice wholesalers.

At around 8.30, I reluctantly dragged myself out of bed. “Sorry, Cat,” I announced. “There’s work to be done and a missing husband to find.” Cat said nothing, watching approvingly as I dressed. I began with my shirt that reeked of sweat and beer, and underwear that looked like it had been used to hoist watermelon.
Cat was still lying naked in bed, her feet grazing where sunlight caught the corner of the ruffled bedspread. "Are you coming back?" she implored, a bruised look twittering in her eyes. She stretched out her arms and shamelessly lifted her pelvis off the bed like a fertility goddess beckoning beneath a glade of jungle. "For some reason I'm afraid to be alone," she simpered. "Something bad has happened. I just know it."

"I'll be back, Cat. I promise." She blew me a kiss.
"Thanks big boy. I want you to know I really appreciate what you're doing for me. I'll make it up to you one day. I promise."

As far as I was concerned, I had been paid back for the rest of my life, and for the next life, too, if there was such a thing.


Through the tear in the blind of the store-front window, I glimpsed a man with straight, jet-black hair, a lustreless, mustard complexion, slanted eyes, eating a bowl of rice with chop-sticks. Before entering what looked like a somewhat unkept establishment, I made a mental note that the man was probably Chinese.

"Are you Wong Chin?" I asked, pursuing my hunch.

He lifted his chin out of his bowl and nodded, and then motioned for me to sit down opposite him at a long wooden table that served as a counter.

"May I offer you a bowl of rice?"
"No thanks, I'm ‘soya’ in a hurry." My attempt at saucy humour caused his eyes to cringe into horizontal slits, and then his upper back stiffened as if a noxious gas had been released in the room. "How's the rice business been going lately?" I asked, trying to put that one behind us.

"A bit slow, perhaps." Wong Chin's voice was as smooth as kid gloves and from what I could see of his face when it wasn't buried in his bowl, he was handsome enough to mix with Caucasian women.

"How so?" I asked.
"How so not in today. Tomollow." He broke out laughing, and then just as quickly fell serious. His English was flawless.
"But you're not here to talk about the rice business, are you . . . I didn't get your name?"
"Ax. Jack Ax."
"Oh yes. Mr. Ax. What can I do for you, Mr. Ax?" he asked, returning his chin to the bowl. He lowered his mandible like a draw-bridge and started scooping rice into a very respectable receptacle.
"Have you ever seen this man before?" From an inner pocket, I extracted three center-fold like photos of Cat's husband, Bart-Bell. I carefully placed them around Wong Chin's rice bowl and watched his eyes turn purple. He raised his head and opened his mouth which was half full of rice.

"Very nice body, Mr. Ax. Very very nice. Reminds me of myself when I was younger."
"Memory plays tricks on us all, Wong Chin," I philosophized.
"What a body," repeated Wong Chin, lazily turning over the rice in his mouth like a sated beast out to pasture. And the rice-man was right.

It was the kind of body you'd find in the glossy pages of the many body building publications that were proliferating like viruses in an already unhealthy magazine climate, featuring pictorials whose sole purpose, it seemed, was to awaken envy in otherwise contented men, and lust in bored women. Not that I had anything against getting in shape; but this cult of the body was going too far. The nerve of these cerebellum-soft goons to pose in front of mirrors all day long and call it a career. I couldn’t help but to think how much better off our society would be if these oxen could be convinced to direct their abundant energies into serving the common weal.
When it came to bodies, Bart-Bell had one of the best, if not the ‘very best,’ argued Samantha Strong, the predatory editor of Bulge. After a six month long world gym tour, Ms. Strong reported that Bart-Bell’s muscles were so exquisitely defined Webster’s Dictionary wanted to buy her magazine's pictorial rights to his body to illustrate their anthropological definition of man. And then there was the pregnant testimony of Werner Aufschneider, an orthopaedic specialist working out of Tijuana, who claimed that Bart-Bell’s body boasted muscles that weren't even supposed to exist.

As related by Bart Bell’s mother who gave him up for adoption when he was seven years old, developing his physique came as naturally as a chimp takes to a banana. And that wasn't all he had in common with that distinguished family.
Recounting some of the events that informed Bart Bell’s adolescence, zoo-keeper and loyal friend, Marvin Hive, tells how when Bart, at the age of 15 and repeating the 8th grade for the 3rd time, realized he didn't have what it takes to become a rocket scientist, he decided he was going to lift himself out of poverty by dropping out of school and becoming a professional thief: ripping off expensive moisturizers from specialty stores and reselling them in the Hills at a 60% discount. He was actually making big bucks and driving a convertible when he sold to the jealous mistress of a police superintendent who ratted on him and helped put him away for a year.

In prison, it was Bart-Bell’s good fortune to have as a cell-mate an androgen nicknamed Cup Cake, who turned the former’s life around by suggesting the hormone heavy teenager take up weight-lifting for the purpose of building up self-esteem and burning off some of that all-too-familiar energy that exacerbates hyper-nocturnal cell-block insomnia. Within six months, muscle-clad Bart-Bell was the pride of his unit. A model prisoner, and favourite of both his fellow inmates and prison guards (and prison psychiatrists), he received parole three months later; and shortly thereafter, found employment as an instructor at The Deltoid, a body building club where he met his future wife, Cat, born Katarina von Strasse.

However, beautiful body notwithstanding, and even with the special effects of high-tech lighting and state-of-the-art computer technology, there wasn't a photographer in the world who could hide the fact that Bart-Bell was a physically flawed specimen. If his rippling hard body, naked but for swollen, bright-red bikini, recalled Michelangelo’s David except more muscular, the sculptor must have abandoned the project when he got to the face.

Observing it from the side, it looked like it had received its roughly chiselled, cliff-like contours from a nearby blast of nitro-glycerine, and from the front, as if it had been mercilessly worked over with a garden hoe. Not only were all the bones unusually close to the surface, they were strikingly angular, as if about to puncture their cover. And where flesh might have softened the severe look, there was only a thin glovelet of stretched skin. In short, it was the kind of face you'd expect to find on the warning sign outside a toxic waste dump.

But to his credit, he accepted uncomplainingly the pre-eminence of his body; and where there might have been trench warfare between face and figure, the two factions managed to forge an enduring peace. A peace which paid out big dividends. Bell-Bell, or Torso as he was called at The Deltoid, got a lot of mileage out of his body: Cat being the obvious prize. Presently, his photos were getting good mileage out of Wong Chin who was making no secret of his admiration.

"Well, Wong Chin?" I asked, interrupting his gaze. He slowly resumed ruminating his mushy rice.
"I've never seen this man, Mr. Ax."
"Are you sure?" I pressed. "I have reason to believe that Bart-Bell himself was in this very office less than three weeks ago. He wanted you to be in possession of an important pamphlet which outlined the dangers of chemically grown rice."

Wong Chin picked up one of the photos and looked at it hard, the well-defined thigh muscles that glistened like Tuscany marble, the corrugated stomach, the iron-hard upper body that resembled a knight’s breast-plate.
"It's too bad I missed him," rued Wong Chin. "However, he did, as you say, slip a pamphlet under my door. But seriously, Mr. Ax, you don't believe in that bullshit, do you? My grandparents have been eating chemically treated white rice their entire lives and both of them are thriving well into their nineties. I suspect your friend Bart-Bell, despite perhaps the best of intentions, is misinformed and misguided. Health science's claims have not been substantiated. Surely you don't think our government would risk the health of its citizens by passing off as harmless chemicals that are known to be dangerous?"

If this laughably open-ended question was meant to get me to declare my views on the government and its mores, it was all I could do to keep my cynicism from spewing out all over his rice. I was tempted to tell him that I would rather leave my 12-year-old daughter in the hands of a horny Catholic priest than with our Senators and Congressmen who spend 90% of their time raising money to finance their re-election campaigns – but I held back.

"I'm in no position to pass judgment on the government's role in the rice business, Wong Chin," I replied in almost laughably laundered language. "But I must say that you seem well informed on the subject."

"I did read Bart-Bell's very interesting and informative pamphlet," he admitted, his each and every word slicked in the finest grease.
"You would therefore concede that if the chemicals under investigation were to be banned by the FDA, your import business would go bust."

"Come, Mr. Ax. No need to jump to such a sad conclusion. If there's a market for organic rice, I can sell that just as easily." Suddenly mocking the broken English spoken by immigrant Chinese, he added: "Chinaman resourceful. We build railroad, open up west. Boss clothes dirty, we dry clean boss clothes. White rice no good, Chinaman sell organic rice."

"You make it sound easy, Wong Chin."
"I don't have any quarrel with organic rice, Mr. Ax. I'll sell what the consumer wants. I am his servant." Wong Chin was as slippery as a soaped eel in a vat of warm butter, and as evasive as a civil servant on the take. But it was still obvious to someone of my vast experience that he was hiding something; and I wasn't going to be put off.
"Anyway, Wong Chin," I began, in a more conciliatory manner. "You were right the first time. I'm not interested in rice, except at supper. But I am looking for Bart-Bell, and you say you've never met him?"
"I wish I had, but I haven't," said Wong Chin with the shake of his head. He set down the photo and replaced it with the more familiar chopstick. “But inside the pamphlet Mr. Bell left a hand-written message that said he would be dropping by in a couple of days. That was two weeks ago.”
“And that was it. He never showed up.”
At this point I believed Chin and decided I had no further questions.
"If you happen to learn something of his whereabouts," I proposed, standing up to leave, "you can leave a message at this number." I flicked one of my cards onto his cluttered counter. Wong Chin studied it closely.
"Ah. A private detective. A noble profession, Mr. Ax," the ends of his wet mouth curled up in a derisive smirk.
I didn't want to hurt his feelings, but Wong Chin's sarcasm was as bland as the white rice he was mashing into a pulp.
Opening the door, I said in parting: "It's an ugly world out there, Wong Chin. I hope you're not part of it."

I walked out of his office leaving him to contemplate a half finished bowl of rice, an uncertain future, and the real purpose of my visit: a nebulous twilight zone that would give him pause like a stopped clock.


I continued making the rounds, stopping first at E & B Imports. Its owner, Vijay Sutri, was the city’s biggest importer of the very tasty and refined Basmati rice from the Punjab. When I entered the spotless establishment, Sutri was reading the latest issue of Hygiene Monthly he immediately whisked out of sight. Despite an impressive array of imported spices and sauces, a customer-friendly stack of fresh papadan near the cash and the sound of onions and garlic sizzling in ghee at the back, the place smelled of Clorex.

Sutri stood up from behind the counter, flashed a long, thin-lipped smile, an even row of tumeric tinted teeth, and in a voice that was so friendly I thought he was going to offer me shares in the Taj Mahal, asked if he could be of any assistance. “Mr. Vijay Sutri, I presume?” He nodded deferentially. “My name’s Jack Ax. We spoke this morning.”

“Oh yes. Mr. Ax,” his face turning sullen. “I don’t think I can help you,” he began defensively.
“Let’s not jump to conclusions, Mr. Sutri. Do you know this man?” I showed him the photos of Bart-Bell which he studied at length.
“I have never seen this beautiful person,” said Sutri nervously, as if under oath, his eyes jumping incredulously from photo to photo. “But I am always looking for new customers, Mr. Ax.”
“How’s business?”
“The last 10 years have been a bit slow, and my children who are attending university are ashamed of their father and refuse to step foot in my store.”
“Maybe they know more than you about the kind of rice you’re selling.”
“Explain please, Sir?” Sutri looked genuinely perplexed. For what seemed like the 10th time today, I explained how some of the chemicals used to grow rice were suspected of being hazardous to health. Recalling Bart-Bell’s pamphlet, I made reference to DDT, banned in North America since the 70s, but still widely used in India, especially for rice. Sutri seemed unmoved by these considerations.
Paying particular attention, if not homage, to one of the photos which he held to the light streaming in through a small window, he remarked in a heavily accented, high-pitched voice: "One day everyone in India is going to look like this and we will be a nation of Gods."
"Are you sure you don't mean a nation of goons," I countered with my usual consideration for minority groups.
"If everyone looked like you, Mr. Ax, we would be a country of swine," he retorted with due consideration of Caucasian sensibilities.
Sutri, a Brahmin by birth, wasn’t afraid to counter punch and would have no truck with the humble immigrant role expected of him by his host country. He reminded you that being physically small and having a large presence are not mutually exclusive.

But when it came to concrete information, Sutri was as tight as his country’s bowel movements were loose. He claimed he had never heard of the name Bart-Bell, insisting that he had trouble remembering Caucasian syllables, and only admitted to having received an information pamphlet that he didn’t bother to read. I was about to leave, mostly to escape the Clorex fumes that were causing my eyes to redden, when the phone rang. A short conversation in Urdu ensued. Sutri held up his hand, indicating that I should wait. During the call he looked alternately pleased and puzzled. But it was with a strictly puzzled expression when he told me: “Detective Ax, I have just spoken to my supplier who informs me that my cost price will drop by 35% if I agree to lower my wholesale price by 20%, which means my profit margin will go up by 15%. This is most unusual and a happy day for me.”

“Where is your supplier located?”
“In the Punjab.”
I thanked Sutri for the information and went straight to my next address.

Dmitri Ramos was the unassuming proprietor of Arrozia. He supplied white rice to the major supermarket chains. When I entered his office, he was slumped in a chair, nursing a hang-over. I took note that he appeared as calm and placid as Sutri was agitated. “Do I know you?” he burped. His eyes looked glassy, like gray stones dropped in deep water.

When I told him I was a detective, he took a deep breath (the substance of his breakfast, I mused to myself), lumbered out of his chair, shuffled to the door, flipped over the ‘back in one hour’ sign, and then motioned for me to follow him.

The store was narrow and deep, its one aisle, like a gorge, flanked on both sides by high shelves that were mostly empty. The air was dusty, almost powdery, with a peculiar jasmine scent that wasn’t unpleasant. Where the main store ended, an oblong opening covered with a rust coloured curtain led to the warehouse, a dark, dry room that was packed solid with 50 pound bags of rice stacked to the ceiling. It was here, at the back, a makeshift office had been constructed.

Dmitri, the quintessential gentleman, motioned me inside, deferentially unfolded a chair, and then excused himself, explaining that he was going to stick his finger down his throat to induce vomiting. I thanked him for the graphics and had to wait no more than a minute before the sounds of his retching and puking pierced the paper-thin walls. When he returned, looking like someone ready to submit to the guillotine as a means of improving his mood, he asked me if his breath stunk. Not wanting to put him off, I told him if he were a woman I would marry him on the spot. "I like a man with a sense of humour," he said dryly. "Why don't you go find one for me." His comeback was artless but I was amused and already felt we were on the same page. "Seriously," he began. "There's only one way to get rid of puke taste in your mouth." He looked at me for a sign of encouragement that I intuitively held back. And then, from a desk drawer, he extracted two bottles and two plastic cups and poured out a concoction of vodka and tequila. "To the end of bad breath," he toasted, raising his cup. "Down the hatch." As far as I was concerned, the hatch should have been the toilet. I had never tasted anything so foul.

When I finally got down to the purpose of my visit, Dmitri was more than candid with his small information. He acknowledged that there had been an unusual drop in demand for white rice during the past month, but when I asked him if he had any idea why, he shook his head, shrugged his broad shoulders, and in a hoarse, viscous voice, proposed: “If I knew the answer to that, Ax, I would be filling up orders instead of these glasses here. Maybe the politically correct mob has finally taken over the country. Maybe the lentil lobby has finally got its act together. Or maybe we’re entering the decade of bulgur and barley. Who knows.” Dmitri chuckled to himself like the philosopher who knows how to be happy in the most hapless of circumstances. “But if it is indeed my bad luck to get stuck with all this,” with the drunken sweep of his arm he accused the 1000ds of pounds of rice in the back, “not all is lost. On the contrary.” He then went on to explain that rather than dump unsold rice if it went beyond the expiry date, he would make rice alcohol from an improvised distillery he had set up in the basement of his home "Good for bad breath," he laughed, tugging at his bristly, prominent chin.

If it were up to Dmitri, we would have spent the entire day together. In fact as I was preparing to leave, he offered to hire me as an assistant: “you’ll be manager,” he laughed.

I liked Dmitri. There was an optimism about him that made you proud to be an American.

By the time I left his office, two things were clear: Bart-Bell had been hard at work before his disappearance, and Sutri and Ramos were pawns in a game most likely international in scope. Unless I was a poor judge of the facts, I was beginning to suspect there was a sordid connection between the drop in demand for white rice and a missing organic rice representative.

Wong Chin had mentioned the government. Was that an innocent remark or telling slip of the tongue? If Bart-Bell was turning into compost, who stood to gain by his decomposition?

There were more questions than answers, and a woman called Cat who kept popping up in my thoughts.
I hadn't felt like this about a woman in a long time. It almost made me feel like losing a few pounds. But not before replenishing myself with a couple of hot dogs, now made with veal cartilage and new and improved red dye number three. I, for one, wasn't going to be caught on the wrong side of the health food wars that were just beginning.
When my gut was full and I could think straight, I hypothesized that Bart-Bell was but a small player in what history might one day refer to as the rice wars: the tip of the ice-berg whose cold roots extended to the depths of corruption. That whoever was calling the shots, including the possibility of gun-shots, there would be absolutely no reason why the individual or individuals masterminding events wouldn’t hesitate to put into practice the Hammurabi dictum, ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth or two.’ In other words where profit was at issue, the law of diminishing returns didn’t apply. Which meant that it was possible that even Cat could inadvertently get caught up in the cross-fire. But that wasn’t going to happen under my watch.


Bart-Bell had done his homework, and it was now my turn. It was time to get acquainted with the facts and fictions of chemically treated rice, which meant talking nuts and bolts with an informed chemist and talking turkey with an organic rice farmer.

But not before checking out the musclephiliacs trying to lift their IQs at Bart-Bell's body building club, The Deltoid.
It is common knowledge that beneath the appearance of gym-club camaraderie, the competition is fierce and ugly; and the air so thick with muscle envy there is no telling what measures these oxen will resort to get that extra edge. With all due respect to achieving the perfect body, watching someone trying to lift and jerk the rock of Gibraltar while flashing an ear-to-ear smile is like trying to beam happiness while in the throes of a week-long bout of constipation. As far as I was concerned, if you could hoist a case of beer you were fit.

Driving into the shopping center parking lot where the Deltoid was located, the first thing that turned me right off was the glitzy neon sign that hung above the entrance, sporting a body builder whose neck was thicker than his waist, and biceps that bulged and flashed 60 times/minute. It was almost as crappy as the kitsch that was hanging in our once respected museums and art galleries.

Inside wasn’t much of an improvement. I was surprised not to find a couple of drop-dead gorgeous, busty receptionists serving as greeting cards. Instead, there was that all-too-familiar chemically treated gym stench, more than an adequate introduction to the mystique of body culture.

But for a few jocks grunting and groaning, the place was almost empty. A specimen going by the name of Phidias approached me. The freak was so muscle-wound he could hardly move. As he lumbered towards me like someone just learning to walk, I couldn’t help to notice that perched on his square shoulders was a head that was so vacuous it looked like it belonged on the end of a bar-bell. Not one to hyperbolize, I have never before or since laid eyes on a head that was so round bowlers wouldn't have been able to resist singing its praises.

Despite these incidental details -- thick, stubby arms paddled back and forth like a penguin, and teeth that looked like they had been used to crush coal -- most women would have characterized Phidias as ruggedly handsome. Adding to his appeal was a body so smeared with oil, I decided he must have just signed a lucrative contract endorsing Canola.
He introduced himself as the on-duty trainer. I offered him a handshake that he ignored. He then slid to my left, and began sizing me up like I was a piece of meat hanging on a hook. "Well aren't you one disgusting fat pig if I ever saw one." Phidias was apparently unacquainted with the Dale Carnegie approach. A derisive sneer lit up his featureless face and then his greasy mouth collapsed like it was seized with the taste of barf.

But I would not be intimidated by his aggressive marketing techniques, and stood my ground that I could hardly see because of my gut. He then managed to slip his hand through my buttoned jacket and pinched my ample handle-bars. "Don't worry about these," he waxed. "We'll get rid of them in 4 months, and then you'll have babes like Cheyenne crawling after you." He threw his eyes to the far end of the club where the offices were located. A statuesque red-head, in a skin-tight, yellow body suit over which was sewn a black, thong bikini, was affixing a food chart to her office door.

"She's the owner," announced Phidias, without blinking. His eyes had that depthless quality of transparent rubber.
"Before you try to sell me a lifetime membership, Phidias," I began coolly, "let me make it perfectly clear that I'm not interested in looking like you."
"Fat chance of that, fatso." I then witnessed an ear to ear moronic grin fasten itself to his clown face. Instead of inquiring about his comic book collection, I ventured:
"But I wouldn't mind having a word with Bart-Bell."
"Bart-Bell? Oh. You mean Torso. He hasn't been around lately."
"When did you last see him?"
"I don't know. Maybe a week or two."
"I thought he works here."
"Past tense, my big man. He quit about 2 months ago. He's into rice now."
"Does he still work out?"
"Sometimes in the evenings."

Phidias was suddenly unable to keep his eyes still, his pupils flying off in all directions like pinballs gone berserk. I should have known than that without bar-bells in his hands he begins to feel like a cross-dresser caught without his panty hose, or an East Indian without contaminated drinking water. To calm himself, he started doing some biceps flexes and neck-ups.

"Does he have any good friends here, besides yourself?" I continued, ignoring his grotesque contortions.
"Everybody likes Bart-Bell. But ever since he got married to Cat he’s been keeping mostly to himself, which is what most men would do if you had a babe like that."

Phidias’ lamp-tanned face suddenly blanched, and then he looked at me in an odd way, as if something with which he was very unfamiliar, probably mental activity, had come over him. "Why are you asking all these questions?" he barked, aggressively stepping towards me. I could feel his breath moist on my face, and the smell of stale coffee and tofu curds.

"I want to talk to him about a personal matter."
"About what?" he charged, as if his on-duty status gave him license to meddle in the personal affairs of the club’s members.
"I would like to know more about his rice crusade," I self-effaced, deciding it would be pointless to advise him that my business with Bart-Bell wasn’t his concern.
"Rice, rice, rice. What's this world coming to. Real men eat shark, sissies eat rice. To under line his point, Phidias gathered up a wad of phlegm with his dexterous tongue, and released it in the vicinity of my shoe. The wad made a slapping sound as it hit the wooden floor. And then his nostrils began to flare and neck veins turned blue. Evidently unable to deal with the growing complexities of the conversation, he suggested in a half grunt: "You'd better talk to Cheyenne. Maybe she can help you."
Pretending not to notice his extreme agitation, I concluded our conversation with a friendly:
"Thanks for the tip, Phiddy. And remember. One day you're going to look just like me." I laughed in his face.
"Fat chance, fat-man. Fat chance." With his glassy, mackerel eyes fired up in bland contempt, he took a deep breath and started posing. The walls of the club were all mirrors, the perfect climate for his narcissism. I couldn't decide if Phidias descended from pea-brained reptiles or the vegetable kingdom.

Leaving him in breathless adoration of himself, I passed a couple of jocks killing themselves for no apparent reason, and then ran into a wall of rank perspiration that caused my nostrils to wish for instant death. I swear I almost passed out breathing in that combination of goon sweat and grease.

With unintended urgency, I rapped thrice on Cheyenne's door.

"Come on in," said a loud, friendly, sandy voice. I walked in. Cheyenne lifted her bright green eyes from her paperwork, and without pause, remarked: "You've come to the right place, fat-man. Have a seat if you can fit in it."
As I squeezed myself into an armchair built for the eating disinclined, Cheyenne politely stood up from her swivel, and extended, in welcome, an unusually delicate and refined hand. I held it for as long as possible without risking litigation, and then yielded to her other abundant charms -- like her hair, which was done up in exotic braids and made her appear like she was peering out of some strange vegetation when the tresses fell over her face. With her lilac scented, six feet tall, slender frame hovering above me, Cheyenne, who was in her late thirties-early forties, but by my reckoning not looking a day older than 25, was making the case that I had finally found the stairway to the fields of ambrosia, such was the effect of her intoxicating womanhood.

I sat there, transfixed, and offered my hand again. In a much softer voice now, like fine chiffon, she introduced herself. "My name is Cheyenne. I'm the owner of this place." She smiled brightly, fixing me with her baby-green eyes while taking great satisfaction observing me basking in her bewitching vibe and hot body.

"My name is Jack Ax. Pleasure to meet you." She withdrew her hand and neatly retook her seat like someone whose etiquette has been informed by Champs Elysees culture. Cheyenne was all elegance and distinction, and the sexy body suit that clung to her delicate, willowy figure reinforced that impression.
"How can we help you, Jack?" she began, wandering her eyes over my formidable beer gut.
"Call me Brick. Everyone else does."

"Well Brick. Shall I assume that you have come here to get rid of about 75 pounds of obnoxious fat."
I was quickly tiring of oblique references to my weight problem and spoke my mind.

"Between you and your sophisticated sales rep out front, Einstein I believed he called himself, I'm under the distinct impression that obese slobs like myself aren't worth much in your circles."

"Don't take it all so seriously, Brick," she smiled, sympathetically. "We're just having a little fun at your expense. I know it takes no small courage for someone of your . . . girth to show up at a place like this. But between you and me," she lowered her voice as if to take me into her confidence, "once you get to know them, I sometimes ask myself if it’s worth it. There's not much substance out there, if you get my drift." Our eyes met and I suddenly realized that hiding behind the bright eyes was a woman who was no stranger to disappointment, who wouldn’t hesitate to ambush an unsuspecting ear for the retelling of her compelling life story.

If I can lay modest claim to being a successful detective, it's because I have always been that special person in whom people from all walks of life have been able to confide. And don’t be fooled by appearances: there isn't a person on this planet who doesn't have a problem or two that needs to be worked out. Women, in particular, have always been drawn to the deep well of my sympathy; and if I may say so, it's a well that has had water for every thirsty soul that has come to drink. It was now Cheyenne's turn to avail herself, and, acting on pure woman's intuition, she drank as if there were no tomorrow.

In the course of our long conversation, I learned that she had hired Bart-Bell the day after he was released from prison; and soon after, fell madly in love with him; and then lost him to a much younger and sexier Cat. She wasn’t too proud to admit that before Bart-Bell, she had had numerous dalliances with other men, younger men who promised to stay – but of course they didn’t. Sometimes she would interrupt her narrative to curse her memory that couldn’t be trusted because all the memories were bad. Now older and wiser, and finally weaned off boy-men young enough to be her sons, she only retained what she characterized as ‘maternal’ feelings for Bart-Bell.

I kind of felt sorry for her as she divulged the most intimate details of her life without any prompting; but women are like that, God bless them all. Unlike men, they're not afraid to open up and empty themselves of their pain and sorrow; and that’s surely why they drink less and live longer than us toughies.

From time to time, in the recounting of her life story, she would fail to recall a particular detail, and would falter in mid-sentence. Determined to reconstruct it as it happened, she would turn inward allowing me to study her expression which was sad and agitated. I took note that her face was unusually unlined, and concluded that she had had undergone a face-lift or two, which would be on par for L.A. where you would be hard pressed to find any woman who actually looks her age.

When I told her that I had been hired to find Bart-Bell who was missing, her hands started trembling. "Oh my God," was all she could manage. From a drawer that was under lock and key, she extracted a flask of Bourbon and poured us each a drink. "I usually don't do this, Brick," she confessed with considerable embarrassment. Holding up the flask to check its contents, she explained: "I've had this for three months and it's still two-thirds full." She poured herself another shot and downed it.

"Life plays dirty tricks on us all, Cheyenne," I sympathized. "You must have really loved him."
"I really did, Brick. And I think he even loved me for a while. But keeping himself fit took its toll, and we both paid the price." She threw me a knowing glance. "You see," she continued matter of factly, as if my confidence was under lock and key, "my extraordinary love for Torso was the purest possible love that can take place between a man and a woman. In fact, I'd like to write about it one day. Body building is . . . how shall I put it . . . a very very competitive sport; and there's not a single one of them out there who doesn't include in his daily diet either anabolic steroids or testosterone. Torso, in particular, chewed them up like jelly beans; and with his naturally muscular physique, I swear he didn't have to work out more than an hour a day.

"I craved his body the moment I laid eyes on it; but it took me a long time to get him in the sack. Anyway, you can imagine how disappointed I was that first night, beside myself with expectation, when I discovered his family jewels had shrunk to the size of chick peas. To be perfectly blunt, Brick, I've sampled more than a body builder or two in my time, but I've never come across a pair of nuts like that before. You couldn't find them with the Hubbell Telescope." Cheyenne's eyes closed almost shut as if to indicate that Bart-Bell's balls were no bigger than bee-bee gun pellets. In the meanwhile, I had to narrow my own eyes to accommodate her sudden shift to street vernacular, but I wasn’t too proud to admit, if only to myself, that her talking down and dirty was my kind of talking, and I was already very much hooked-lined-and-sinkered by the multiple personalities and varying perspectives on life she was serving up.
"But funny enough,” she went on in a bitter-sweet dulcet, “that's when I realized I really loved him. Not for his body, but for himself. So I told him how I felt about him, and that the sex really didn't matter that much. He in turn made me understand that the only thing he had going for him in his life was his body -- that without it, he was nothing, going nowhere. And that's when we both realized that we had found that very special other person with whom we could be completely honest, in whom we could confide our ears and human frailties. We were working on a wonderful understanding, Brick, and getting closer to each other with each passing day, and I felt it was just a matter of days before the sexual animal in him was going to take over and ravish me. In fact just thinking about it still gives me the shivers. And then Cat joined the club, and the whole thing crashed.” Cheyenne's brows and mouth turned south. I had to look away from the angry lines shooting out from the corners of her eyes. “That she-bitch with that slurpy twat of hers,” she added hatefully."

I don’t know who it was who said “we unmask ourselves whenever we speak,” but it didn’t take long to figure out that Cheyenne was a woman of considerable gifts, whose personality was as powerful and engaging as her faculties of judgment were weak. I believed that Cheyenne had seen it all out there, had exchanged body fluids with good and bad alike, and like a chameleon she could change her colors on a dime to suit her purposes. I suppose if there was something about her that I was beginning to like, it was that she might have disliked herself more than she hated Cat.
But then again, who knows. You show me someone who likes himself and I'll show you someone who has never looked into the mirror. And God only knows why they all end up in LA, a city that turns good people into bad and then makes them feel good about it. As far as I’m concerned, if you manage to spend time in L.A. without experiencing a boost in self-esteem, you’ve been spending too much time trying to be you – a past time that turns even the happiest disposition into a self-loathing cynic.
Maybe one day I'll find the inner strength to renounce this place and leave it for good, which isn’t to say that L.A. doesn’t have its purpose in the grand scheme of things, if only to remind the world that the great American dream still has some good dreaming left in it.
A city can only give back what you put into it. L.A., once a wondrous, lusty city happily gone wild with gonorrhoea and gold-fever is now a dreary place, where everyone marches to the same drum roll, programmed to follow the signs to the city’s rose-flushed sphincter bursting at the end of the rainbow only the blind can see.
Cheyenne took a deep breath and continued. "If you've ever seen Cat you'll know that there isn't a man alive -- and that includes monogamous, misogynist gays -- who can say ‘no’ to that. I mean there isn’t a pore in her body that doesn't drip sex."
"But,” I interrupted, “ will Cat be looking as good as you when she reaches your age? I know where I’d put my money.” I made sure she noticed as I appreciatively traveled my eyes over her well preserved face and figure.”
“I do appreciate your kind words, Brick, but what happened happened, and we can’t turn the clock back and I can’t pretend that I didn’t hate her for what she did. From day one I didn't like her style. If she didn't have a man staring at her, I swear, she'd get a headache. And watching her work out on the bench was like watching her bring herself to orgasm. I would have kicked that ass-for-every-occasion out of here a long time ago except she was really good for business. Memberships almost doubled during her first few weeks at the club; and women body builders got off on her just as much as the men. And then about a month and a half after she joined up, she met Bart, they fell madly in love, and four weeks later they got married – just like that. It broke my heart, Brick. And I had sworn that no man would ever break my heart again." Cheyenne's eyes grew sad and lachrymose; there was no escaping the unhappiness that was her albatross and the deep reservoir of self-pity that fed her vanity.
“I thought I knew everything there was to know about being hurt,” she explained. “But I was wrong. Dead wrong – and there were times when I had to fight the temptation of not wanting to wake up ever again. And of course when you’re in trouble all your friends conveniently disappear. And let’s not forget those goddamn experts who make it sound so simple: ‘depression is merely prolonged unhappiness.’ Of course that’s what it is but it is never simple.” Cheyenne squeezed her thumbs and wetted her lips. “ I’ve been much improved for the past month or so, Brick, but I know I’ll never be the same. Can't remember the last time I made love. My therapist tells me that I have to learn to live with the beautiful fragile and vulnerable person that I am, and learn to love and cherish all that is good there."
I couldn’t help thinking that I might have to learn to like all that was especially bad in Cat, if Cheyenne’s account was to be believed.
"Well I sure like what I’m looking at,” I said robustly. “And let me tell you that it takes no small courage to talk about yourself like you’ve been doing. I sure as hell couldn't do it."
"Thanks for the kind words, Brick. As soon as you walked in here I knew I could trust you.”
"You are one courageous lady, Cheyenne.” And not one to resort to clichés, I added: “And you’ve got a lot going for you."
After this exchange, which was more like a mutual ego massage, Cheyenne required no prodding to get on with her story. "And what happened to Cat?" I asked, hopeful of learning more about her sexual proclivities.
Cheyenne gave pause before answering, as if deliberating over a multiple choice question. “As much as I hate her, Brick, I cannot tell a lie. Immediately following the wedding, Cat became a different person. The day she became Mrs. Cat Bell she got rid of all the kink from her routine, the sexy workout outfits, and made it a point of hardly talking to another man. And I know from first-hand experience that she didn't marry Torso to improve her sex life. I sure hope she gets laid once in a while." Cheyenne offered me another shot of Bourbon which I refused, which made her think the better of pouring herself one.
“And what about Bart?”
"About a month and a half ago, Torso announced he was quitting to become an organic rice representative, which kind of took everyone by surprise. As you might have guessed by now, he's not exactly the brightest bulb out there, but this organic rice thing was . . . whew . . . off the wall, to say the least; until I started to do some independent research on it. I must tell you, Brick, I almost got sick reading about the hundreds of different kinds of pesticides and herbicides and fertilizers they use to grow fruit and vegetables. According to something I read in the back section of the newspaper the other day, they found 16 different chemicals in strawberries. And forget about red meat. That's slow suicide."
Cheyenne suddenly shifted narrative gears. "Now I know it's none of my business, Brick, and we've only just met, but if I were you I'd seriously consider getting your colon checked out." Sympathy and solicitude were flashing in her lizard green eyes.
She meant well and I suppose I should have been relieved to be off the subject of my weight -- but I wasn’t.
"I appreciate your interest," I buttered back, but my colon's feeling just fine, thank you,” recalling this morning’s considerable dump.
"Our feelings sometimes fool us, you know,” Cheyenne persisted. “I'll bet your colon's just begging to be flushed."
When it comes to communicating interest in the opposite sex, women are categorically more creative than men. If women can be said to be completely in their element where the line between fiction and reality blurs, Cheyenne had definitely not disappointed the stereotype.
"Flushed?" I expectorated.
"You know. With water and tubes and all that."
"I didn't know that kinky sex and colon care employed the same technology."

She threw me that ‘he’ll never learn look,’ while I threw her a ‘get yourself a sense of humour, lady,’ look. Unfazed by this non-verbal exchange of irreconcilables, she returned to her true confessions, her face suddenly taking on a wearied expression.

"A week and a half ago, Torso called and said he had to talk to me right away -- in person. He said it was urgent. I told him no problem, come on up. But when he arrived, looking like he hadn’t slept for two days, he wouldn’t talk. But I knew something was wrong because he asked if he could sleep here because he didn't want to worry Cat who must have been worried anyway: he couldn't tell her where he was because he was afraid their phone was bugged. When I woke up the next morning he was gone and I haven't heard or seen of him since.

"Did he act like he was being followed?"
"He didn’t look out the window, if that’s what you mean."
"Did he look scared?"
"More worried than scared. He even had a beer, which would have been his first since I’ve known him."
"You must have talked about something?”
"He hardly opened his mouth. He drank his beer, started watching TV and 10 minutes later fell asleep on the couch. Oh yah, he did mention that he had to get up early in the morning because he had an appointment with a rice farmer. And I found this on the floor just under the sofa;” she jumped up to get her purse, fumbled around through its clutter and finally extracted a piece of crumpled paper.
I flattened it out. "662-6565: Well, I could a hell use a lead or ten.”
Cheyenne started fidgeting with her tresses. “Well Brick. I’ve told you everything I know, how about you telling me something?”
“There’s not much to tell, other than I’m a private detective and that I’ve been hired to find Bart-Bell."
“You’ve already told me that,” she said narrowing her brows. It didn’t take long to fall out of her favour. “I want to know what’s really going on and how this is all related to rice?”
“I’m not sure myself.”
“Who hired you to find him?”
“I’m sorry. That’s confidential.”
“Does Cat know?”
“Not yet,” I lied.
“But is the person who hired you a friend of Bart’s?” I nodded affirmatively, growing uncomfortable with Cheyenne’s cross examination.

In violation of the no smoking rule of the club, I lit up and inhaled to my toes, realizing that if I didn’t give her something concrete to chew on, she would probably become very uncooperative. So I said:
“I’m prepared to tell you this, Cheyenne, but don’t set store by it because it’s only guesswork – so keep it between us.”

Anxiously leaning forward in her seat, her back perfectly straight, and with a look that was now so distressing it would have been mean spirited not to give her a tid-bit or two, I began:
“What strikes most of us as nothing more than the simple rice business is in fact a highly competitive, cut-throat, international contest for market share, with the warring parties resorting to anything and everything to discredit, if not eliminate, the competition. My guess is that Torso has got himself caught up in the middle of high stakes turf war he doesn't understand, and that he got himself so far over his head he managed to make somebody’s wanted-dead or alive list. From what I’ve been able to piece together, it sounds like he’s working alone, and that he’s got hold of some highly sensitive information which is making certain people nervous about their money -- perhaps big money. Now I’ve been involved in similar case-situations and what usually happens when large sums of money are being redistributed to one side’s disadvantage is that the people on the losing end will do whatever is necessary to staunch the bleeding. And whatever it is that they have ‘might’ have done, and I emphasize the word ‘might,’ just might explain why Bart-Bell is missing. As you must have already surmised, I really don’t know a hell of a lot more than you do about this.”

Cheyenne took a deep breath and glared at the cigarette smoking on the ashtray like someone who was once fond of smoking.

“But it just doesn’t make sense, Brick. He’s only distributing lousy information pamphlets. Big deal.”
“I agree. Distributing information pamphlets seems harmless enough. It’s the ‘what else’ he’s been doing that might explain his disappearance. And then again, sometimes people disappear because they’re hiding or running away from something. But either way, Bart-Bell doesn’t have very much going for him. From what I’ve been able to gather he’s very naïve, and stubborn, and has lots of personal problems – and definitely not blessed in the area of intelligence.”
“As stupid and naïve as they come,” she said gritting her teeth, as if Bart was in the room and she would only have to slap him to bring him to his senses.
“How did he get along with his fellow body builders?”
"Everybody liked him, and he was always willing to train people, including people who were competing against him and were jealous.”
"He may have never won a major competition, but they all knew he had the best body in the business. The TV camera was his only flaw."
"Anyone in particular set against him?"
"He never mentioned anyone. But he's not the type to notice. In fact, that's exactly what bugged everybody. Torso was friendly towards everybody; even with people who openly disliked him."
“Such as?”
“The other trainers were always bad-mouthing him, but that’s par for the course in this kind of business.”
"Does he have any friends here?"
“You’ve got to be kidding.” With a dismissive flick of her head, she sent her long braids flying in a backward rush. "Body builders are a strange tribe, Brick. Their one and only friend is the person they’re looking at in the mirror. And if you’re lucky enough to break into that very select inner circle, you quickly learn that ‘envy’ is the drug that keeps them pumped up.”
"You’re talking from experience?"
“I was a competitive body builder for about eight years. In fact until about three years ago I used to be 20 pounds heavier, and it was all rippling muscle except I could never get enough of it onto my legs -- but that’s in the past. I'm running a business now, which means looking after the bottom line is more important than developing the perfect body or selling my ass to some pervert in exchange for sponsorship. But yeah, there was a time when I couldn't get enough of myself.”
"And I suppose looking the way you do you get more than your share of hunk attention here?"
"Oh yeah," she said in a tired voice. "But I've learned some hard lessons over the years. Going out with a body builder is all show and no substance. You make love maybe twice a month, and the rest of the time all you talk about is food, calories, muscles and working out. To be honest, I'd rather watch somebody collect stamps than go out with a hunk."
I had to laugh. Cheyenne was like a caricaturist when it came to painting pictures with words. Maybe someday she would write that book of hers.
I had no further questions, so I thanked her and stood up to leave. She, too, stood up, forced a smile, and extended a limp hand that was trembling like some new life that was fearful and wanted to be held tight.
"If there's anything I can do to help, Brick. I can't bear the thought of Torso being hurt."
“I’ll keep you informed,” I assured.
"Actually, there is something you can do for me,” I said at the door. When do you close at night?"
"At 11."
"Do you personally lock up?"
"A janitor comes in at around 10 and locks up at midnight"
"I'd like to check out the locker room after hours, if you don't mind?"
"Go ahead, but I don't have the lock combinations."
"The only thing easier than picking your nose is picking a lock," I said, hoping to humour her.
"Thanks for the life-style information. Why don't you pick me up at my home at around 11. I have to let you in and then shut off the alarm." She scribbled her address and phone number on block paper and slipped into my hand. "If you come over early enough, I’ll cook you up a ‘quickie’ meal, if you're in the mood.” She made sure I didn’t miss the playful twinkle in her eye.
Little did she know that I was yet another man she had already lost to Cat, a complication I hooped would never come to her attention.
"I just might take you up on that,” I said, pretending to be talked into an informal get-together I wouldn’t miss for the life of me. I've got a long day ahead of me, and who knows, I might not find time to eat. But I wouldn’t bet on it," I winked.

I left Cheyenne’s office with mixed emotions. Despite a mini-series of confessions that would have unsettled the gonads of the most chaste priest, I felt there was an unrevealed side to her that she was keeping under strict lock and key, and not only for her benefit but for everyone else’s. There were also her unspoken feelings for Torso that struck me as disproportionate – but to what, I couldn’t say. Perhaps Cheyenne was nothing more than a bleeding heart who only cared about herself and how the ravages of time were showing on her; and men like myself were merely conveniences on whom she could download her pain and suffering.

Leaving the club, I passed the same pair of greased-up, contorted goons who were still punishing themselves for no apparent reason, wearing miserable, even tortured expressions on their faces.
I silently offered a prayer to the Gods for letting me live my life like a slob.

From the mall’s only phone booth that hadn’t been vandalized, I called the number Cheyenne gave me, but there was no answer. So I called up a detective buddy at one of the precincts who owed me numerous favours, whose computer told him that the crumpled up phone number belonged to Mort Ives, a rice farmer living in the Tehachapi region about seventy five miles outside of L.A. I was acquainted with the landscape there and wondered how rice could grow in arid land.

I decided I would pay him an impromptu visit; but I sure as hell wasn’t thinking about that as I squeezed into my roomy 1958 Lincoln Continental. I couldn’t get Cheyenne out of my mind: that tight body of hers, and even sharper mind, and yet there was something about her I didn’t trust. Maybe it was the way she contradicted herself. It was as obvious as a full moon that her heart still throbbed for Bart Bell, even as she was indicating in no uncertain terms that she wanted a slob like me to perform some major sexual healing on her. Of course things like that happen when your reputation is preceded by your sperm count. But I’m no sucker for flattery. Which is to say, if everything in life reduces to sex and money, there was no doubt where Cheyenne stood in respect to sex, which meant there was a money angle she was holding back on. In fact money wasn’t mentioned once during our lengthy conversation. I made a mental note to check up on the financial affairs of The Deltoid.


It seemed to take forever to break out of LA. With bottle necks at every exit, slowdowns in the fast lanes, revving motors grating on my ears, transport trucks advancing like wounded dinosaurs, and insufferable carbon dioxide emissions smarting my eyes, my nerves would have shredded the steering wheel if not for the calming effects induced by chain-smoking. A couple of days ago I had read somewhere that there was a probable link between lung cancer and filtered cigarettes. So with prevention clearly in mind, I was now in the habit of snapping off the filters before lighting up -- relishing the increased temperature of the smoke getting sucked down into the basement floor of my leather-tough lungs. The hot pulmonary massage from half a cigarette’s worth of deep drags was the perfect antidote to the tortuously slow traffic that was testing my forbearance. And it wasn’t long before the positive effects of my health initiative began to kick in, like a marathon runner finding his second wind.
Speaking of the place that reminded me of bad wind. When I finally put the endless urban sprawl of L.A. behind me, I felt that I had narrowly escaped the tight grip of an angry sphincter. Had it been in my power to choose the socially correct musical accompaniment to my leaving, it would have been the sucking melody of toilets flushing in a dysentery ward. But no such luck; there was no escaping L.A. Full of its own foul air, it was the cork that would never go under. Like steel, it had been tempered to endure: and as an historical entity, it was the cockroach that would survive the apocalypse.
I felt a sudden outpouring of pity and sorrow for the wretched humanity condemned to live and die here, without ever having known of something other than the shit life.
Like India, or any third world country, California is as much myth as reality, and thrives in paradox. If India has its black holes, California has its Hollywood and Vine. If India promises Nirvana to its hopeless, California promises Universal Studios and Jim Morrison lieder. And while much has been written about those two consolations, I've never met anyone who has actually succeeded in staying there for any significant length of time. And when they come back, on all fours, to report where they've been -- chasing down rainbows on the south side of the killing fields -- it reads like an account of the good will between guards and convicts at an overcrowded maximum security prison.
When I crossed the San Andreas faultline, I felt the kind of physical relief that follows the release of a long held-back dump. If, geographically speaking, Southern California represents the ass-end of America, L.A. is the diarrhea that’s all over the place, which makes leaving L.A. feel like recuperating from a sickness of being.
Speeding along interstate 10 that was smoother than wet liver, I was overcome with pure joy and gladness looking at the mess I had left behind in the rear-view mirror.
Indulging in a recurring fantasy that always accompanies my leaving this city I love to hate, I’m on the winner’s side of the Californian coastline breaking off along the San Andreas and tumbling into the sea. In the dream, I don’t shed tear because I know that for most of the inhabitants the silent eternity of a watery grave is a Godsend and proof of The Almighty’s compassion.

And then I exited left and entered another universe.

The sun beating down on the lonely strip of highway that stretched out like a tongue of white bacon sped through landscape more parched than rhino hide aching for the wet lips of rain. Everywhere the eye fell the terrain was scabbed and blistered with sores of blanched rock and scrub. Unlike the easy roll of the dunes that induce calm and pleasant thoughts, this knotty, strangled place looked like it had been subjected to the wrath of the cosmos -- a fitting punishment for the bipeds that had messed it up bad. And the postcard wasn’t helped by the forlorn presence of desiccated bush and uprooted cacti stumps that recalled the fallen limbs of luckless lepers for whom the miracles of modern medicine came too late. But all things considered, it felt good to be in the open space, out of sight of the species that never fails to turn my stomach.

Watching the desiccated, wind-lashed terrain rush by, I felt purified and healed; until my meditation was interrupted by a pack of savage prairie dogs crossing the road looking to sink their teeth into red meat. I pulled over onto the shoulder and observed them sniffing about, tongues hanging out dry, front teeth bared. I couldn't help to confess to finding something honourable -- even noble -- in the way they went about their murderous business of survival. They certainly didn't need an apologist for what was done candidly, out of necessity. Good old necessity -- that all purpose catchword that has justified every evil done under the sun. Yet even when in the frenzy of tearing apart the flesh of their prey, these ferocious canines were saints compared to inhabitants of L.A.’s executive suites. Suddenly picking up on the scent of something, they sped off and vanished beneath a flat cover of spiny shrub.

I quickly forgot about the dogs. Following the monotony of the lonely highway that began to rise and meander, my senses dulled and facial muscles began to relax, and I found myself surrendering to a kind of bliss I hadn’t known for some time, but which all Californian’s claim as their own. In the spirit of the Eighth Edition of the Zen for Dummies guide, I let my thoughts follow their least path of resistance in the endless expanse of blue sky floating above me, as calm and bright as an opal shot through with white light; while through the rear-view mirror I could still see, in out-line, the opaque sky-line of L.A. choking in the red ashes in yet another conflagration of greed and envy, the non-negotiables of human enterprise.

And yet in about four hours from now I would once again be among the crazed multitudes, fighting to get past sphincter-gate, into the festering maw which I call home. I guess if L.A. is an incinerator, there's a part of me that likes the heat; and now there was the heat between myself and Cat that could bring a continent of ice to a quick boil.

It was noon and I hadn't had a beer in a while. My inner mouth felt like a wind duct in a flour processing plant. In fact, I was so dry I was seriously thinking of tapping into my bursting bladder. And that's when I saw in the near distance, an oasis of silvery light glittering on the road, and Cat splashing about in her natural state, her flesh all goose-bumpy, raising an ice-cold bottle of froth to her wet lips, droplets of water running off her coppery wet body begging for the lick of my tongue. I had never met a woman who could get into your thoughts like Cat.

The landscape suddenly greened as the road snaked up into the Teháchapi hills. Isolated farms and small farming communities were comfortably settled in the green valleys, showing signs of modest prosperity. I exited onto a gravel road and drove by lettuce and tomato fields, citrus orchards and nut trees. Compared to L.A. this was Eden, that is if you believed your eye. Of course, if you believed the paranoia report about pesticides and herbicides, it was all forbidden fruit -- or at your own risk. Apparently manure was passé. Which begs the question: could something that looks so good be so bad, besides beautiful women who thrive on breaking the hearts of men for whom self pity is the designer drug they can't get enough of.

Beautiful as all this was, none of it prepared me for the beauty and lushness of Mort Ives' rice fields swimming in liquid green. The breeze-caressed, undulating grass was so fine and delicate it looked like fox fur brushed to the lustre of silk. In fact the landscape was so indescribably beautiful I became convinced that if God were ever to visit the good earth, to repair his most defective species, he would surely choose to land on these favoured fields whose innocent green could dissolve the ugliest perversion. Meandering through the paddies were irrigation canals, recalling the exotic killing fields of Nam and Cambodia – and my good buddy Wardlaw.

Mort Ives was busy outside of what I would characterize as a non-descript, 2-story wooden house but for the peeling paint which gave the place a scaly, almost reptilian aspect in the bright sun. He was tightening something in the door panel of his pick up truck. A German shepherd tethered to the porch started barking as I squeezed out of my car. Ives spoke to it sternly, quieting it down.

A large man, but not fat, with deep rills in his sun-baked face, he unhurriedly returned the pliers and screwdriver to their designated areas in his tool box, and walked straight up to me, the heels of his boots crunching the coarse gravel.
"Until about a month ago," he began, "I used to get one or two visitors a year here: and those were invites. What's your business here, Mr.?"
I decided to play it straight with him, and introduced myself as a private detective hired to find Bart Bell. I summarized what little I knew and waited for a response.
"How did you find me?" he finally asked, apparently absorbed by my brief account that he seemed to accept at face value.

"Bart-Bell mentioned to someone that he knew you."
"You're one of the good guys?" he asked. If Ives was understandably a bit cautious and even a tad inhospitable, he struck me as a straight-shooter for whom bull-shit was the stuff that fertilized land or the imaginations of the smallest minds. And you could tell right away that he was his own man, with a charisma that came from an odd place, and a reassuring presence that made you want to immerse yourself there without quite knowing why. If there was a quality or trait that recommended him to the good and bad and ugly of mankind, you would need the writing skills of a Tolstoy to get it right, so I just resigned myself to leaving a blank page there as a kind of homage to a man whom within the first minute of meeting him I would have liked to call my old man.

"I wouldn't be here if I wasn't," I answered tough. He looked at me hard. I returned his gaze and it was settled. Ives reminded me of myself when it came to assessing character -- a sharp-shooter who never missed.
"If you’re a friend of Bart’s, there’s something you got to see.” He turned his strong back and broad shoulders to me, this strange combination of frontiersman and soldier, indicating I was to follow him to the truck. I hadn’t even closed the door when the vehicle lurched forward and began tossing me from side to side over the rutted dirt road. As I beheld the lie of his lush rice fields following an undulating course against the serene azure above us, I felt that this stranger and myself were becoming joined in a common cause that needed no words to make it so. I hadn't felt this way since Nam. And if since then, I had been stubbornly my own man, it was probably because I hadn't met a better man than myself -- until now. Mort Ives made me look up to him. He commanded respect without asking. His silence was the place where people unaccustomed to silence could be perfectly themselves. I soaked it up to it and experienced a felicity I hadn’t known in a long long time.

As the pick-up bobbed and weaved in and out of the ruts of the road, I contented myself with being tossed back and forth like a cork on a choppy sea, until we turned left – ignoring the private property sign -- onto a narrow paved road that was hedged on both sides with young vines. Ives explained that his neighbour, Bobbie Socket, was a grape grower.

About a 200 yards or so into Socket’s property, Ives, looking for a marker, slowed down to a gradual stop. The marker turned out to be a footpath that we followed through the waist-high vines that opened up onto a clearing. On the far side of the clearing in another vineyard was a tractor hissing like a boiler about to explode, its steel frame obscured by spray and steam. Ives grimaced. "That spray you see there is 100% toxic." He stared intently at the commotion moving methodically along the horizon, and then turning towards me asked in a friendly growl: "What did you say your name was?"

"Jack Ax. But call me Brick."

"Those chemicals, Brick, and there are hundreds of them on the market, make grapes grow big and fat. They keep off the insects, they kill weeds, and they make fruits and vegetables look nice and pretty in the supermarkets. Now take a look at this." He ripped off a slim stem from a vine. The twigs and small green buds were dusted in white spray. "That, my friend, is what you and I are eating every day. And that's what my neighbour and his kids are breathing every time he sprays, which is more than five times a year. Socket's wife's got leukemia, one of his kids suffers from asthma and the other gets skin rashes. Last year they sent one of the kids to a relative’s in L.A. In less than two weeks the symptoms disappeared.” Mort stopped, and looked me in the eye.” You heard right. LA air is better than this crap we’re breathing in. Kids born here suffer from 25% less lung capacity but nobody’s talking the truth.

We retraced our steps and drove back to the dirt road and stopped. Ives indicated that he had something else to show me. From the back of the truck, he yanked out a spade shovel and speared it into the ground. "Brick. I'm going to let you in on a secret that every American deserves to know about, God bless them suckers." A look of disgust came over his face as he spat on the ground. "On this side of the road is my land, and,” with a fierce flick an eye, “that's his land. Now take a good look at this." With a strong foot and leg driving down on the spade, he sliced into the ground and unearthed a shovelful of his land, and then a shovelful of his neighbour’s, laying them side by side. He then made me smell them. His earth was rich and funky. His neighbour’s had no smell. The colour of his earth was Manitoba black; the other, sickly and bleached. Ives' land was sticky in the hand: it held together like it had purpose; the other crumbled like powder and dispersed in the smallest breeze.

Ives turned to gaze at his rice fields shimmering in the brilliant sunlight. "My land is alive, Brick. It's organic, it's an ecosystem. Treat it right and it replenishes itself. Healthy things can grow in it; fruits and vegetables and grains retain their original taste. My earth is home to insects and worms. His land is dead. Nothing lives there. It's a laboratory; it's a chemical waste-dump. Mother earth has been ravaged and plundered -- and with the blessings of those simpering wimps in the White House."

Despite the prima facie evidence and the sincerity of Ives’ outrage, I was still somewhat sceptical.
"You mean to say that chemicals are responsible for all that?"
"My land was exactly like Socket's ten years ago when I made the decision to get out of chemical farming. And it took three, maybe four years for the land to return to normal. My acres are living proof that chemicals are responsible for the waste-land Socket has made of his place, for his wife wasting away with cancer, and kids who are going to get it if it doesn't get them out of there soon. We used to be good friends until I tried to help him. Until he taught me that pride and stupidity are two sides of the same coin that mean more to him than his family's health." Ives abruptly fell silent, his battle fatigued features smouldering in anger as he chucked the shovel into the back of the truck -- into the jugular of the system he was up against. "Now let's get back to the house."
Listening to Ives talk about his land that that was an extension of everything he believed in, his straight forward common sense vibrated like it were born of the earth. His carefully chosen words were the harvest coming to bear witness to the earth that was as sacred as the mystery of seed bursting into life. Mort Ives didn't own land: he possessed it because he cared for it, was vitally connected to it and all the living things it contained and all the futures it would sustain.

If Ives lived his life in order to make good things grow, I got my kicks and kickbacks making deals with the beautiful and the damned, and making it a point of honour of leading the way. Mort Ives didn't have to inquire about my life. He had already unearthed a shovelful and made me stick my nose in it.

More than ever now I was determined to help Cat and Mort and Bart-Bell, and finally turn my useless life around. We might have lost the war in Nam, but when I came back I was a soldier and a real man until they both disappeared on me, and I suppose I’ve been looking for the man and soldier ever since – in every bar and dive that stay open until the dawn’s early blight.

In the rolling silence of the truck, my eye rose and fell with the tilt and lurch of the land; and then I must have nodded off for a few minutes. When I awoke with a jerk, I felt refreshed.

The furnishings of the Ives home were simple. I reckoned he was barely making ends meet, which meant living with himself was more important than making a good living

He introduced me to his wife April who was nearly as large as her husband, but not without shape for a woman who might have been in her late fifties. "Would you gentlemen care for a beer in this hot noontime?" Her lazy, melodic voice belied her quick movements. By this time, I was so dry I was shaking and ready to suck beer caps. We had hardly assented when two tall glasses of heady beer were set down on the bulky wooden table hidden beneath a floral, plastic table-cloth. We raised our steins and clinked, and then I drained the half of mine in one swallow, and gagged.
“What in the hell did you put in here," I expectorated. "This tastes like weasel piss.”

"It's chemical, alcohol-free beer," beamed Ives, swishing and swirling it in his mouth like it was a precious wine straight out of the Baron de Rothschild’s cellar.
"Do you have any real beer in the house," I begged. Ives shook his head. He was quite openly enjoying my discomfort.
"It grows on you, Brick. Like the chemical-free rice wine I make, which I know you're just hankering to slurp down. To be honest, I didn't like it much at first, neither. But nowadays, it reminds me of what April used to taste like when she was thirty years younger: all fermentation and bubbling sweet with vi-tality."
"Do I take it that you're lodging a complaint, Morton Ives,” rebuffed April, sucking in her stomach and cocking her hip. “Well if you are, let me remind you that it took all of my womanly devotion not to liken you to a barrel of lard standing next to Bart-Bell the other day who couldn't take his eyes off me."

"That's only because Bart-Bell's a city boy, April, and he had never seen a real live cow before." There was an ejaculation of chortling and guffawing. Mort began slapping his thighs like an excited beaver whacking the water with its tail, while April was bent over double in a paroxysm of laughter. There was no mistaking being in the presence of a happy couple for whom the other would rise like yeast when it came to making the little things in life count.
Turning serious again, Mort Ives continued. "Do you know how many chemicals they use to spray beer hops? At least 25 according to one report. Why do you think all beer tastes the same? Because the chemicals make it all the same."
Ives systematic recounting of hard facts would have made more of an impression on me had I not been mentally preoccupied with the dreary task of preparing myself to go without booze for another couple of hours. But then suddenly giving in to that inner voice of desperation which turns heroes like myself into brazen cowards, I involuntarily blurted out: "Do you have any Bourbon in the house?" I tried not to sound like someone who would sell his mother for a shot of cheap aftershave while my eyes frantically scanned the shelves and cupboards. Ives, whose expression turned into an unholy mix of pity and resignation, instructed April to indulge me. And indulge me she did. That wonderful lady, that sister of mercy whose heart was bigger than all of my wanting, had the decency, the compassion, the generosity of spirit to pour me a three and a half ounce shot which I swallowed in one glorious gulp, to which Ives responded:
"If I may be somewhat indelicate, Brick, I think you've got yourself a problem that needs looking after."
"Your near empty bottle," I complained, the attempt at humour falling on deaf ears. Ives fell silent which was a sign for April to begin tidying up the kitchen.

What this large lady lacked in natural grace, she made up for with purpose and sure organization. Observing her insouciantly making order out of the chaos of jam jars, cutlery, and pots and pans, it occurred to me that during all my years of womanizing, I should have been looking for something more permanent in a relationship. And while it's true that I had surely been of comfort to many a women, and even loved by some of them, I had never been connected in any meaningful way. Maybe Cat would change that, and I would finally learn to assume responsibility for things I had been sloughing off for the past 20 years.

When Ives determined the alcohol was beginning to take effect, he started up again. "Do you realize, Brick, that the bumble bee population is down by 35% in these parts?" I confessed my ignorance on that widely discussed subject. "That spells hard times for honey makers and higher prices for consumers; and we had all better get used to seeing fewer flowers in our fields." Ives paused to check the effect of his science on my city boy's mind. I decided it was beneath my dignity to advise him that while I might not have had much in the way of formal education, I sure as hell knew that bees impregnated flowers. Satisfied that we were on the same wave-length, he resumed: "The reason the bee population is down is because of chemicals -- the bee equivalent of the Black Plague. Scientific America refers to it as bee colony collapse disorder. Not only are bees dying off like flies, but among the farmers in the area here, there's more colon cancer, asthma, skin rashes and respiratory problems. Coincidence? Fat chance."

Besides respecting Ives, or any man that looked like he could put away a Big Mac without chewing it, I was now developing a genuine liking of the guy, who was also good company. He spoke with passion, and didn't blink when he talked; and he wasn't the type to torture statistics until they said what he wanted them to say -- a tactic he referred to as White House hocus pocus.

"Do you have any idea how many millions and even billions of dollars farmers spend on chemicals per year? When was the last time you saw an apple that wasn't bright red, or green peppers that weren't waxed? April now soaps all our store-bought veggies before we eat them, and she says she has to use Comet to get the wax off the peppers. And those are only the surface chemicals. God only knows and God help when we find out what’s inside.
"But what we do know is that some of the chemicals are suspected of being carcinogenic. And that some of them have been undergoing tests for twenty years, and they, in the government, still haven't decided if they're harmful or not. But of course they're still on the market.

"Socket's wife's got leukemia. In fact, she's going to die soon because of those chemicals, which kind of makes you wonder why they are still out there, right? Bottom line, that's why. The big chemical manufacturing companies like Pontude are going to lose billions as soon as word gets out that their products are carcinogenic, but you’ll never hear a peep from the Food and Drug Administration. Something's got to be done, Brick, because the government isn't doing nothing accept caving in to the lobbyists who are pumping millions of dollars into electoral campaigns." Ives wetted his lips and mouth with a swallow of his weasel piss. "Bart-Bell is trying to do something about it. He's organizing us organic rice growers into pooling our resources to hire an independent team of chemists to run parallel experiments on some of the herbicides and pesticides that have been under government review for the past two decades. It's a shameful joke what's happening in the corporate boardrooms. The government announces it's testing, let's say, three suspect herbicides that might be linked to cancer. It then tenders the research to a company, which just happens to be a subsidiary of the company that manufactures the chemical. No conflict of interest there, right? Naturally, it's in the everybody’s interest to delay, especially a negative result, for as long as possible -- decades if need be. When it comes time to vote on releasing their findings, both the research lab and parent company stand to win big bucks from suppressing the result – and so does the government, by the way -- so they collaborate on a progress report advising an unsuspecting public that the results are inconclusive and that the test period has been extended for another three years. This kind of fraud and deceit has been going on for two decades now. In my mind, we're up against companies every bit as powerful and unscrupulous as the South American drug cartels.

"Bart-Bell, who I assume you’re enquiring about, was supposed to come up. He called the night before to tell me he couldn't make it, and would call back the next day. Haven't heard from him since. But he was scared of something. There was no mistaking that."

Ives stopped, and with a penetrating glance swept April and myself up into his purpose. Indignation and conviction were written all over his face. He was ready to take on the history of evil, and I wasn't going to let him battle alone.
It occurred to me that if Bart-Bell had paid the ultimate price, that would make Cat a widow, leaving me with in purgatory with divided loyalties and a headache that only a good buzz could cure. And of course a company that stood to lose millions, or an industry that stood to lose billions, wouldn’t hesitate to nip any possible interference at the bud. They would do what was necessary to obviate the need of having to exercise some form of damage control, knowing full well that it would only be a matter of time before negative findings would escape the company’s tight control -- and from there, it would simply be a question of time and timely legislation before the banning of certain chemicals would come into effect -- and untold billions would be lost.

Ives had already obliquely indicated that if Bart-Bell were indeed indisposed, it would be his moral duty to continue the crusade. The latter had already given Ives a list of organic rice growers who were willing to throw caution to the winds. When I advised Ives that there could be dire consequences to his meddling, he responded coolly, explaining that the consequences would be worse if he were to do nothing. When I asked him if he had a gun or rifle, he replied what red-blooded American hadn't.

The more I thought about it the more I became convinced that Bart-Bell had been left permanently inconvenienced, and that his demise was in all likelihood engineered by one of the big chemical companies that would arrange matters to make another party seem guilty.

But until I had a body, or somebody I could reasonably point a finger at, I decided it would be counter-productive to go after the big fish, even though that's what I was hankering to do: to go beyond Cat's original appeal, which was to find her husband.

This case, and the stench it was giving off, was making my nostrils twitch. For the first time since Nam a sense of outrage had been awakened in me, and the outrage was hungering for justice. Or -- and it was an ‘or’ I couldn’t ignore -- was all of this just an excuse to try to compensate in one grand gesture for the way I had been conducting my life for the past two decades, and could no longer be bothered to stem back the rising tide of guilt and shame that was leaking out of every pore of my pathetic self.

Like lawyers, detectives don't pick sides. We offer our formidable skills to good and evil alike, and at the end of the day, the day is justified by the paycheck. The case could be made that we make car mechanics look like saints.
While wondering what it was about Mort Ives that had me assessing my life with an objectivity that was almost frightening, I couldn’t pretend that I still hadn’t enough drink in my system. And never far removed from the catalogue of excuses that allows one to self-indulge and things we know are bad, I made appeal to the latent philosopher in me who whispered, with a tip of his hat to Homer Simpson: only the ‘unexamined’ life is worth living.' It was Mort, himself, who poured me another stiff drink from another bottle hidden away.

It was well into the afternoon, when, after the worst meal of my life -- green salad, brown rice and red beans and no meat – I reluctantly left the friendly confines of the Ives farm and headed back to L.A., but not before instructing Mort to advise me of anything suspicious happening either on his or a friend's property.


As the late afternoon light flamed violet and then dark red and L.A. came into view, the city looked as if it had issued from a monstrous blood clot that had been spit out of the sun. Soaring up into the blood-shot, eviscerated firmament were the city’s tallest buildings whose smog obscured towers looked torched and turned into liquid fire. But it felt good to be heading home -- a rider on the storm.
It was too early to drop in on Cheyenne who would still be at the club, so I decided to visit my office, which I hadn't seen in six months, to check for messages and to bring my registered Smith & Wesson out of retirement.
By the time I turned into the run-down warehouse area where my low rent office was located, the streets were predictably dark and empty. Accept for luckless tourists, everybody knew that walking in this area after hours was like playing Russian roulette with six bullets.
I used the after-hours key to get into the poorly lit lobby. Naturally, the elevator was out of order and I wasn’t exactly overjoyed at the prospect of having to climb four flights of stairs -- especially without an alcohol buzz.
I had just entered the first stairwell when I heard what sounded like a metallic clinking, its echo running along the pipes. And then the power went out like the sound of a metal bar snapping, as a ferocious fist grabbed the back of my collar pulling me backwards, but my 250 pounds would not fall to the floor with a single yank as I brought my elbow up to the much shorter man's jaw which snapped his teeth shut on his tongue causing him to yelp, but he was all muscle and as quick as a squirrel as he landed a vicious kick to the groin and fierce punch to the solar plexus took my wind away. Crumbling in a heap to the floor from a blow from a second attacker, a hoarse Clint Eastwood voice, rasped: "This is to remind you, Ax, that you are one, happily retired detective." Then almost shouting dry air, the voice said: "Retired, Ax. Retired." And then the lights went out.
When I came to, the power had returned and my head was swimming in a pool of blood. I brought my hand to the side of my forehead and felt a deep gash. I tried to get up but the pain in my groin was unbearable. I felt I was going to puke so I lay perfectly still and waited for the nausea to subside. I then managed to get to my knees. Feeling short of breath, I sucked in a good quantity of air and almost collapsed from chest pain. I figured they must have been kicking field-goals with my rib cage. At last, I managed to pull myself up, and leaning against the wall for support, dragged myself to the front lobby and then to front door, before staggering into the car and draping myself over the steering wheel where I rested a while. With an old oil rag, I made an attempt to wipe the blood off my face and hands, and noticed another deep cut on the top of my head -- probably a souvenir from the butt of a gun.
During what seemed like the endless drive to Cat's, I was at one point on the verge of fainting, and had to pull into a McDonald's parking lot where I observed I wasn't the only one who looked sick.
Ten minutes later, it was difficult to sustain the notion that I was living in a godless universe when a parking spot miraculously opened up just as I arrived at the entrance of Cat's building. Blood was still trickling from my head wounds into my eyes and down my face, so I again went through the motions of preparing myself for a Robert Redford look-alike contest, but it wasn’t meant to be: the blood refused to staunch.
I was surely one hell of a mess as I stumbled into the lobby of 1001 bright lights where a hot-to-trot teenage couple were waiting for the elevator, their eyes pinned to the floor, trying to pretend not to be terrified. They thought better of inquiring about my health while waiting out the interminable seconds and floor clicks as the elevator slowly descended. “After you, Sir,” said a fearful female voice. The elevator door had just closed shut when a pain ripped through my head like a vice tightening on my temples, causing me to drop to my knees before I could press the floor button. At this point, the girl, who was practically stapled to her boyfriend, could no longer ignore my grave condition, and managed to ask: "To what floor, Sir?"
Despite being on all fours, blood pouring out of my mouth like a wounded Plaza del Toro bull waiting for the final thrust, I was able to reply: "I was told they sell gravestones on the 11th." Neither dared to laugh. In slapstick fashion, both their thumbs collided on the button as the elevator jerked into its ascent.
If one of my greatest pleasures in life is derived from hating the Mafia, it's an even greater pleasure to encourage others to hate that sick, demented organization that extorts money from hardworking, decent people -- many of whom are their fellow Italians. So I told the terrified couple that I was Italian, in the ready-cement business, that I had recently knee-capped a client because he was late with his monthly neighbourhood security contributions. I explained that I didn't want other small businesses to get the impression that I was getting soft. Glancing up at faces drained of any trace of complexion, they must have gotten the message that I hadn’t picked up my diplomacy skills working for Mutual of Omaha.
When the elevator stopped at the 11th floor, I was too weak to stand up and I had to ask the kids to haul me to apartment 1106. But my 250 pounds of America’s best, less a quart or two of the red stuff, proved more than they could handle; so crawling on all fours and bleeding like a leaking Red Cross blood bag, I thanked them for their help and told them to read Da Vinci and visit Sicily; and then set them free. "It was nice meeting you, Sir," said the young man whose face was as mice-white as mine was Chianti red. When the elevator closed, I crawled to 1107 and rapped at Cat's door.
I could hear the phone ringing 2,3,4,5 rings; and then it stopped. Silence. The low hum of the building generator. Just my luck. Cat wasn’t home. Now what was I to do. I could feel blood running into my left eye. I again rapped on the door, and waited. Pressing my ear to it, I thought I heard the floor creak. My heart started pumping loudly. It had to be her sneaking up to the peep-hole. "Cat. It's me. Brick," I said in a voice that was so weak I hardly recognized it. There was a pause.
"It's you, Brick?" she asked, doubtfully.
"It's me. It's me," I gasped, resting my hurting head against the door. I listened to the chain lock falling free, clanging against the press-wood, and then the turning of the main lock. The door cautiously opened. My bleeding head slipped into the opening. Cat dropped the eight inch turkey knife she was clutching.
"Oh my god," she erupted. "Oh my god. What happened?" She pulled me through the door, double-locked it, ran to the sink and back, and with a dish towel began frantically mopping up my face and head. She then dragged and crawled me through the living room into the kitchen, and somehow propped me up against the stove where I sat slumped.
She again asked what happened, but I was too weak to answer. I had lost a lot of blood. "It's all my fault, Brick," she kept saying over and over again, “it’s all my fault. You shouldn't have met me."
For the next thirty minutes I wasn't sure if it was Cat Bell or Florence Nightingale attending to my wounds. In her caring ministrations, my pain disappeared without the aid of a single pill or shot of the hard stuff. With warm water and warmer hands, she methodically cleansed and disinfected my deep cuts and many lacerations, all the while whispering the tenderest of encouragements: "Now this is going to sting a little so hold on to my waist while I . . ." and then she would press her warm breast against my cheek. "We don't want any infection to set in, now do we." Treading on cherub’s feet, she flew back and forth between the medicine cabinet and kitchen, plying Band-Aids, scissors, peroxides, ointment and gauze, reassuring me in the softest whispers that everything was going to be OK, her gentle, caring voice falling on my ears like children's nursery bells. "Now let's take a took at that aching chest of yours, honey." With gravity and purpose, she drew one arm and then the other out of my blood spattered jacket, and then unbuttoned my equally bloodied shirt. Like the relief a burn victim feels from a cold compress, Cat’s wonderfully cool hands probed and gently pressed on each of my ribs. "Everything seems OK here, Brick. Nothing is broke but you've got a lot of mean welts that need looking after." She then scampered off into the bathroom where I could hear her draw a bath. A few minutes later, she came scurrying back, pulled off my shoes, socks and pants, and managed to support me to the bathroom, helping me into the tub. With a sponge, she began squeezing warm water over my neck and shoulders. I wanted to tell Cat what happened, but she wouldn't let me talk. "You can tell me everything in the morning," she promised. The tub was so relaxing, I actually fell asleep, awaking to the sensation of Cat’s soft smooth lips pecking me on the forehead and eyes.
After the bath, she daubed the water off my sore chest with a soft towel, and helped me to the bedroom where she sat me on the edge of the bed. “Now take two of these,” she urged, handing me a glass of water and two pills. “Actually, you had better take four. They'll help you sleep." She then made me lie on my back, placing both pillows under my head.
Up until that very moment, I was a confirmed heathen. I had always felt that the idea of God and all the artefacts in His name were necessary only because the overwhelming majority of mankind wasn’t strong enough to believe in itself. In the real world, Churches were places you could cool off in summer or catch a free concert if you were into pipe organ, -- which I wasn't -- or, in consideration of the powerful incense they kept smoking all day long, a safe place to inconspicuously blow off some flatus. But thanks to Cat, I now understood for the first time how it was possible that people could actually talk about angels as if they really existed. Not only had I become convinced that there was a God who had a grey beard and could whip Mohammed Ali in his prime, but that Cat was one of his angels, going through growing pains but growing all the same.
Surrendering to her every gesture of loving care, I would never again doubt that goodness was merely an injunction telling bad people how to behave, but was a choice that could redeem the most evil of us. Slipping her one hand into mine, and cocooning it with my other, I suddenly couldn't imagine living my life without her. "I feel so bad, Brick," she kept repeating. "It's all my fault." I made her promise not to leave. When the medicine began to take effect and she began to slip out of focus, I rested my eyes on her fuzzy silhouette gleaming faintly in the last light. The last thing I remember was the soft, cool weight of her full breasts caressing my burning chest wounds; and then I fell into a deep deep sleep.


When I awoke the next morning, bright sunlight was pouring into the room. I could tell, by the messed up blanket and extra pillow, that Cat had lain beside me, but she wasn’t there now. I cocked my ears for a sign of her but there was none. The clock radio read 12 o'clock. "Christ," I muttered, surveying the variety of Band-Aids and gauze on my arms and chest. I had slept 12 hours and was feeling a bit groggy from the pills. For a while I just lay there, dozing on and off like some primitive life form beyond good and evil, until I heard the door unlock and Cat unpacking what must have been a bag of groceries.
It was time to seize the new day. To my surprise, my chest didn’t wince when I sat myself on the edge of the bed and my head felt better than it must have looked. Unhurriedly getting dressed, I experienced only minor discomfort slipping into my white shirt, which, to my surprise, showed no traces of blood, and pants which had been washed and creased. Catching a reflection of myself in the full-length mirror, I studied my face and the blood-soaked gauze wrapped around my head. I must have looked like a Khmer Rouge waking up to another bad day.
As fast as a struck match catches fire, the bloodied headband triggered off a memory, and I was suddenly time-warping; but it wasn't my own blood that I was staring at. I was back with Wardlaw on his last night on the planet. His headband was also soaked with blood, but he insisted to the Sergeant (a psychopath whose sanity was saved by the war), that he was OK, that he wanted to accompany the platoon on routine reconnaissance that morning. The next day, in thick jungle, right in front of me, he stepped on a land mine that send his body parts in all directions. I've never been able to forget the force of his blood and limbs flying into my face, and the Sergeant threatening to ventilate me if I didn’t move my ass, “right now, motherfucker. Surest way to get yourself killed is to start feeling sorry for someone who’s already dead. Now fall in or you’re going home in a body bag, soldier. Sir. Yes Sir.” An hour later, a Vietnamese village was completely wiped off the face of the earth. And no one was sorry.
Cat was observing me in the mirror. "What were you thinking about, Brick? You lips were moving like you were talking to someone."
"I served in Viet Nam," I said in a voice that must have sounded strange and remote. "I still think about it sometimes, about the brothers who didn’t make it back, the insanity of it all."
"I read about that terrible war in school," she said with an innocence that made me feel like a brute. Refusing to allow that gap in experience to come between us, she quite literally leapt into my open arms and began pecking at my lips, eyes, cheeks, and neck. God. What had I ever done on this here earth to deserve such affection. "Are you feeling better this morning, honey?"
I put my arms around her, lifted her T-shirt and pressed her against me. For a minute or so we just held each other tight, surrendering to the connection that was growing fast between us.
"Now let me make you some breakfast," she said, reluctantly disengaging, tugging down her T-shirt. "And then I'll change your Band-Aids."
She darted into the kitchen where I heard her opening and closing cupboards and setting a table. "The recipe calls for six eggs and a half a pound of cheddar and two tomatoes," she read out-loud.
I wasn't sure if that was for one or two persons so I proposed: "Make that 10 eggs." I didn't want to be caught short on cholesterol for the day. I would have suggested she skip the tomatoes had I not been so unnaturally disposed to compromise.
I suddenly felt a bit wobbly and went to lie down when Cat inadvertently appealed to one of my many excesses.
"Come into the kitchen and talk to me, Brick. There's some cold beer in the fridge."
After a lengthy 1/16 of a second debate, my strength miraculously returned and I made it to the kitchen without incident. Opening the fridge, I expertly snapped off two beer from the 6-pack, and with the least commotion possible sat down at the table. Not wanting to create extra dishes, I forwent the formality of a glass and quietly guzzled down this liquid gift from the gods in the time it takes to pour them. Cat took some seconds from her omelette preparation and threw me a disapproving look. "I'm dehydrated," I protested. "Almost getting killed does that to you."
"Have you ever tried water?"
"You mean the stuff that comes with fluorine, chlorine, aluminum and lead," I answered back, remembering some of the data from one of Bart-Bell's information booklets. I wasn't in the mood for a diatribe on diet from someone who not only knew what she was talking about, but had the perfect body to back it up.
If my body was a warehouse for every chemical and dye that had found their way into the food chain and my blood-stream, I didn't need to be reminded more than once. As to the pursuit of truth for its own sake, which is nothing but crap and hype, whoever said it was the cause of all unhappiness was dead on!
"Healthy bodies get rid of those toxins, Brick," she said off handedly, like she was talking about the weather or bowling ball preference. "But in your case, they have found the perfect home; and I'll bet you'll never guess where?" Last night's Florence Nightingale was this morning's state prosecutor.
"Probably in my brain which still feels like a Church bell in automatic ringing mode."
"That's a good guess, but actually most of the toxins collect in fat tissue called adipose. Which in simple language means there's more to your belly and buttocks than meets the eye." I resented the unflattering reference to my hygiene, but decided I was in a no-win situation.
"Alright," I conceded. "I guess there comes a time in every man’s life when he has to consider the possibility that he’s not living as healthy as he ought to be.” I looked at my stomach hanging over my belt, and then I looked at Cat, who was as compact and lithe as a gazelle.
As it so happened she was wearing one-size-too-small white leggings which fit like skin around her shapely legs and precocious posterior.
"When you're feeling better, I'll teach you some buttock firming exercises," she volunteered.
"You've got your work cut out for you," I returned, with calculated understatement.
With a playful glint in her eye, Cat deposited the 10-egg omelette in front of me, crossed herself in mock prayer, and then served herself a glass of tomato juice and saucer of 1% cottage cheese. Sitting down, she requested: "Now give me a morning kiss and tell me what happened last night." When, after emitting a sharp groan, it became apparent I couldn’t meet her half way because of my aching ribs, Cat got up and leaning herself over the table, began planting petal soft kisses on each of my eyes and on my lips. Her face and breath were as fresh as wild flowers that grow in high altitudes. I was amazed that domesticity could be so agreeable.
And then I began to eat, enjoying each and every bite of the hardy breakfast I had earned the hard way, when I mistakenly lifted my eyes for only a split second and caught Cat staring at me disapprovingly, as if were something 4-legged lost in the bottomless trough of my appetite. My omelette was already ancient history when Cat began nibbling at her cottage cheese.
I pre-empted what would have surely been another impromptu lecture on my eating inhalations by recounting in some detail my conversations with Wong Chin, Cam Sutri, Mort Ives, Phidias and Cheyenne.
"And only a few hours later, one of them wants to take you out. Just like that," concluded Cat, more perplexed than upset.
"Apparently so," I said. Her gaze was intense.
"They don’t mess around, do they?"
"I must be getting too close for someone's comfort."
"That strikes me as a reasonable conclusion. Who do you think is behind it all?"
"Either somebody in the rice business or somebody connected to your husband's disappearance, which might be one and the same."
"I don't like this at all, Brick. I think you should bring the police in. It’s starting to look like that this case is a hell of a lot bigger than even you care to admit, and frankly I don't want to lose you. It’s not worth it. Not after last night."
"Don't worry about me, Cat," I baritoned back, inspired by the recall of Victor Mature disposing a ferocious lion with his bare hands. "This game calls for one loser and it ain't going to be me. I have a feeling that something big is going to break soon, but this time I plan to do the breaking -- of a few necks if need be.” I paused to check the effect of my pep-talk. Cat was observing at me as if I were ailing under a Superman complex. Undaunted, I continued.
"I'm supposed to meet with Cheyenne tonight after hours at the club. Maybe there's more to those rancid jock-straps than meets the eye."
"I think you should take it easy today. You lost a lot of blood last night." How would Cat know that asking a detective not to follow a lead was like asking water not to be wet.
"I appreciate your concern, Cat, but this case means something special to me; and I'm determined to listen to my heart which right now feels bigger than all the friends of evil out there."
"Cut out the crap, Brick, unless you want to get yourself killed before we know each other for 24 hours. By my reckoning, you’ve lost ‘a lot more’ than just blood.”
"I'm serious, Cat,” ignoring the sarcasm. “I want to find your husband and find out what's really going on in the rice business."
"So do I, but don’t do it alone."
"Give me a day or two and then I’ll turn it over to the cops. But first I want to talk to one of Pontude's lab technicians or chemists. No harm in that, is there?
“I call you every hour.”
“It’s a promise.”
"You’re not leaving now, are you?"
"As soon as we're done talking. A detective knows that people who do things in a hurry, especially under duress, usually make mistakes somewhere along the line – and it’s my job to force these mistakes. But first, I'm going to go home and get into some clean clothes."
Cat extended her hand across the table and looked at me like she could hardly speak. "Listen big boy” she said in whisper, half choked up. “Don’t forget to pack a suitcase and bring your shaving kit when you come back. And the rest you leave to little old me." I was now my turn for my eyes go wet, which never happens except when I visit my Mom who always starts up with: “I know you from somewhere, don’t I?” I’ve never felt comfortable dealing with raw feelings, but I managed to say:
"Thanks for fixing me up the way you did last night. I've never been looked after so wonderfully before." I stood up to leave. Cat took my hand and slipped her fingers through mine.
"Is there anything I can do while you're gone, Brick. I don't want to sit around all day waiting."
"Actually, there is something you can do. I'll give you the phone number of a friend who owns a credit rating firm. Tell him you know me, and that my code is blue-on-blue, and he'll tell you everything you want to know about Cheyenne: her birthdate, social security number, work history, credit rating, income tax file number, tax paid, net income, all of which you’ll write down. You'll then call the IRS and impersonate her, and ask if they received the fifteen thousand dollar check you sent a while back. They’ll either deny it or correct the amount. The rest is candy, but make sure you write everything down. The information usually comes faster than you remember it."
"That sounds like fun, but isn't that an invasion of privacy?"
I kept forgetting that Cat was half my age and as naïve to the ways of the world as she was experienced in sex.
"Privacy," I began to explain, "is one of those big empty slogans politicians make a point of waving in our faces like the flag -- before their election, of course -- but the promise is full of exit clauses. In the real world, there are simply too many unscrupulous people working with sensitive information for privacy to mean anything."
"I'm not so sure about this, Brick."
"Do you want to find your husband?"
"Isn't there another way?"
"I'm listening."
"It makes us no better than them."
"If privacy had any meaning, I wouldn't be a successful detective. My career has thrived on abusing the people's so-called right to privacy, and all the window dressing in the world isn't going to change that. But we're doing it for the right reasons, and that's what counts."
"I suppose," she said, unconvinced.
Cat was at a strange point in her life. The kid in her was excited by the idea of playing detective, while the maturing woman that she was showing signs of becoming was starting to feel compromised by the darker implications of the deeds we were plotting together. In other words, Cat was quickly learning that life is essentially a dirty affair, and that good people aren’t nearly as good as they think they are, and the true good ones are the ones you never get to meet.
We made plans to meet at a neighbourhood bar called Strange Days at around 3 pm.
"Are you sure you can move around, Brick. Maybe you should rest until tonight." Sooner or later Cat would learn that real men are never at rest.
She insisted on accompanying me to the car, pressing herself against me all the while in the elevator. It felt good to be clung to and held. Even when I turned on the ignition, Cat couldn't resist poking her head in through the window and began kissing me all over again. With the intoxicating after-taste of her sweet lips still sweet in my mouth, I drove off into battle -- a warrior up against the sins of the species.


For the first time in my life I felt lonely entering my apartment. I hadn't realized how drab it was -- a reflection of the emptiness I had been carrying inside me but chose to ignore, until now, that is? Until Cat. The box-like design of my bachelor's was poorly lit and plantless, the pasty walls were bare, the furniture oversized and worn, and the air redolent of the stale smell of beer from the empty cases stacked higher than the fridge. To be honest, I couldn't recall the last time I pissed yellow, an occurrence for which my underwear was thankful.

Feeling a bit dry under the tongue and mildly head-achy, I went to the fridge that was crammed with beer and restricted myself to a six-pack. And then I found myself thinking about Cat instead of the case I was supposed to be working on. I had to admit that this woman had gotten under my skin like no woman had ever done, and yet I was at a complete loss to explain how someone so young could initiate me into the mysteries of falling in love. She made me feel like I was back in grade school going gaga over one the teachers. Or was I was just so plain, miserable lonely that I wasn’t really falling in love with Cat but the idea of being in love, of being connected to someone. What would Cat know about love that I didn’t? And yet there was something about her that caused me to hunger for love. Maybe it was her hunger for me, a hunger that was so urgent it couldn’t be ignored. And why should I?

I wondered if she still had feelings her husband? If she had ever really loved him. Maybe in her most private thoughts she had already resigned herself to the worst. She must have stopped loving him long before she met me.
As a couple they were a mismatch, as unlike as smart and dumb. Nothing got by Cat. She was as sharp as a whistle who understood her natural intelligence was ‘almost’ as effective as her body in respect to procurement and providing for her happiness. Her husband, from what I had been able to piece together, was as dull as the backside of a knife who couldn't cut his way through an interesting conversation if his life depended on it.
What brought them together was mutual fascination; confusing need with love tore them apart. Thriving on that eternal confusion, like maggots on fresh manure, are the divorce lawyers, the gangrene of higher education. Next to lawyers, mercenaries are saints; the former get paid, the latter pay with their lives.

If some of us, on a good day, actually learn from our mistakes, Cat had surely learned some hard lessons during the past three months. My guess is that if she were to meet Bart-Bell now, she wouldn't give him the time of day. And while I would be the last person to deny him the recognition he deserves for doing something positive with his life, none of this guarantees a good marriage. Cat must have found him as boring as watching an ice-fishing competition. If my shapeless body paled beside the rock-firm Bart-Bell, the muscle between my ears and healthy testosterone count more than compensated for what Cat characterized as my excess adipose. Which is to say, I was fairly convinced that Cat was more than pleased with the up-grade.

Seriously falling in love for the first time since I was an adolescent, I had the presence of mind to remind myself of the dangers of being in that perpetually dreamy state of mind. When you're in love, it's only natural to do things that aren't in your best interest: that's what makes love so special. It brings out our capacity for heroism and nobility, for doing what is right instead of what’s smart. Have you ever noticed that it’s always the love-struck who end up sacrificing themselves for another person or idea, inconsiderate of the consequences. I believed that I was prepared to put myself in the line of a hail of bullets to save Cat from harm. And I had never known this feeling until now.
Without even the smallest debate, I started packing enough clothes to move in with Cat. For the first time in my life I felt I belonged somewhere outside of my appetites and desires, and this strange feeling was both liberating and daunting.

I still felt a bit weak from last night's one-sided altercation, so I decided to rest up a bit before thinking about how I would infiltrate the Pontude lab. When I awoke, four hours later, it was already 5 o'clock. Feeling a bit out of sorts, I splashed cold water on my face, yanked a cold beer out of the fridge by its neck, and then called the Strange Days bar and told Cat to meet me back at her place.

Relative only to L.A., traffic was enjoying a mid-afternoon siesta. But the pollution was out in full force, recalling the punishing rubber industry stench of Gary, Indiana and its surviving mutants. As irony would have it, the noxious air had a positive effect on my thinking. I merely had to turn my mind over to the case at hand, and my next move was in the books. I surmised that of the many chemists and lab technicians working for Pontude, there would be one, of the female variety, whose social life could do with some improving. My mission was to meet this unspecified lady, somehow engage her in polite conversation, charm her, and then charm her out of what would otherwise be classified information.

I was in a buoyant mood when I arrived back at Cat's. The second I entered she threw her arms around me, as if we had been separated for an eternity (which would be the truth less one day, that being yesterday, the day we met). Before I could begin to speak, she began to French kiss me, and then we were French kissing each other, even as she was slipping something into my hand; it was the key to her, or should I say ‘our’ apartment. “Welcome home, honey,” she said a bit out of breath. From just outside the open door, I hauled in my surprises: two suitcases, one of which was stuffed with the harvest of the hops, the other with an overdue wash.

Looking over my new digs, I was struck that there was hardly any sign of Bart-Bell, who, until quite recently, was once the man of the house; his personal belongings seemed to have vanished. I couldn't even find a photograph of the much photographed man. Cat explained that Bart removed almost all of his personal belongings the day he disappeared, which suggested his move was planned. If so, to where, and why? And with whom? One thing was certain: I sure wouldn't be here if Cat thought he might be coming back.

During my unpremeditated afternoon nap, Cat proved to be one hell of an industrious detective. Hardly able to contain her excitement, she explained that she had had a lengthy and profitable chat with an IRS employee who couldn’t resist her bewitching voice. And when made to understand that he wouldn't be disappointed with the voice's body (which he might be allowed to look at one day), he was more than willing to divulge that four weeks ago an amount of twenty five thousand dollars, representing outstanding back tax, was credited to the Deltoid's account. And that a few days later, another twenty five thousand was credited to the Deltoid's mortgage, which left unpaid, meant Cheyenne would have had to declare bankruptcy. "Cheyenne,” began Cat triumphantly, “has either found herself a rich lover, or someone did her a huge favour in return for another favour -- an I'll scratch your back if you scratch mine arrangement. Now I would sure like to know what kind of fifty thousand dollar favour Cheyenne could return? Maybe we can trace the check?"

"That's easy enough to do, but it won't tell us much. It was probably a certified check bought with cash and signed under a bogus name."
"How do you think this is connected to Bart?"
"I’m not sure if it is, but with any luck, I’ll be finding out more tonight. I still suspect she has strong feelings for your husband. Maybe he even went back to her."

At that suggestion, Cat turned red, and then tried to cover it up which made it even more obvious. Bart-Bell was the first man who had ever left her and I had thoughtlessly dumped salt on wounds that hadn't yet healed. There followed an awkward silence while Cat recomposed herself.

When she started up again, it was in a faltering voice, but she was determined to deal with the facts -- however unflattering. "Maybe he did go back to her,” Cat dispassionately proposed. “I know I wasn’t able to provide him with the understanding he needed." She lowered her eyes and kept them there. "There are lots of men out there who need older women. Maybe it has something to do with his mother giving him away when he was seven years old. He's probably never gotten over that. There were days when he wouldn't let me near him." She paused, and blew her nose. “I remember about two weeks before he left, something strange came over him. It was like overnight he became a stranger. You couldn’t talk to him; he insisted on eating alone. And at night after supper he would go for long walks, sometimes three or four hours, walking in circles around the block. And when I would ask him if anything was wrong he just shook his head. Of course, at the time, I didn’t know he was planning to leave me. But I still knew that something was very very wrong because at night, the great exhibitionist that he was, didn’t want me to see him naked. And by that time, my being naked sure didn’t mean much to him. Maybe he did go back to her, if mothering was what he needed most.

“Cheyenne doesn't look like anybody’s mother to me,” I countered, “Not with that kind of body language. But then again, she’s harder to figure out than the shape of wax under heat."
"For the record, Bart didn't take much of an interest in any woman's body -- especially mine. In fact, I've never met such an unresponsive man." She threw me a ‘that beats me’ look. "But that's all in the past. Thanks to you, Brick honey, I've recovered all of my self-esteem."

She suddenly took it upon herself to unbutton my shirt and began nibbling at my flesh. I felt my legs weaken, and was about to oblige what I thought were mutual pressures when she just as suddenly got it into her head to fix up my Band-Aids. That meant stripping off the old ones that made me wince, the familiar sting of iodine, and more ointment and gauze. Fifteen minutes later, in a slick white head-band, I could have been the subject of a photo essay for Sports Illustrated -- at least from the neck up.

Cat then announced that she was going to work out at the Deltoid.
"Keep your ears open," I reminded her at the door, playfully poking my tongue into her ear. She squealed, her eager hands grabbing the folds of flesh under my shirt, while I indulged in fondling the most exquisite ass in the solar system. And then she was gone.

I waited for my blood pressure to return to normal before calling Pontude International where an obliging secretary explained that Pontude's laboratory was housed in a separate building, and that the afternoon shift checked out at a quarter to five.

Half an hour later, I was discreetly parked in the vicinity of the employee's exit, pretending to read a newspaper. Tinted windows made my spying activity all but unnoticeable, except to passers-by peering into the car, most of whom were bored adolescents looking for an unlocked door to a dreamy afternoon on the town.

At exactly fifteen to five, an explosion of laboratory automatons burst out of the lab into the blinding light of the afternoon. If there were twenty five of them in all, they were all wearing sunglasses and white-frocked lab coats. I quickly narrowed the field down to two middle-aged women, one who got into a sports car that screeched away. The other was walking in the direction of a nearby shopping district.

I decided to tail her by foot, but by the second block regretted not having taken the car. I was still under the effects of last night's ambush, and found myself a bit short of oxygen which in this hell-bent of a city is always in chronic short supply due to the demands made by the thousands of different smog particles fighting for their place in the sun.
Stepping into the sooty exhaust of a begging-to-be-retired city bus, I was suddenly seized by a coughing paroxysm right in the middle of traffic; temporarily immobilized, I thought my chest was going to burst out of my rib cage. If this was a forewarning of an imminent heart attack, the chorus of angry horns, screeching breaks and abusive language made it clear that I would be better off dropping dead on the sidewalk – like a good pedestrian. But I wasn’t dead yet. Despite stabbing chest pains and shortness of breath, I was able to rally my spirits, convincing myself that this vigorous walk, which was more like a workout, might do me some good -- and looking good for Cat certainly wouldn't hurt what was, in my estimation, our 4th of July love life.

After the fourth block, with my reserve of good intentions completely exhausted, I stepped out into the middle of traffic and tried to flag down a taxi. The lady's pace was decidedly eastcoast: sanctimonious, purposeful -- a sorry contrast to West Coast ambulation that has cultivated to an art form the affinity between virtue and appearances. I was just about to turn in my badge when this wire-thin, middle-aged lady, with ash-brown hair cut like straight like a monk’s, turned into a plush, artsy-fartsy restaurant bar. I kept back a bit, fumbled with my newspaper while observing her taking a corner table near the ceiling-high front window whose wide ledge was potted with tall reeds and a myriad of exotic plants. Her complexion looked like yogurt against the rich backdrop of house plants that filtered in the sunlight. She was hardly settled when a drink arrived: she was a regular.

The place was eerily quiet, with neither back-ground music nor the gurgle of water that never fails to remind me of puking babies. I was contemplating moving into the table right beside hers, but with so many available places in her area, I decided if I were too conspicuously ‘interested’ she might clam up on me. But then again, I reconsidered, she probably comes here every day looking for a man, and as fate would have it, today would be her lucky day. So with an air of resolve and proprietorship, I strode right past her and parked myself at the adjacent table, all the while pretending to ignore her. Struggling to get comfortable in a chair built for a midget, I felt her eyes going over me with undisguised appreciation. I opened up yesterday's newspaper and started going over the basketball scores for the second time that day. In the meanwhile, she had extracted a compact from her purse and began rouging her thin, pale lips which magically grew thicker and more sensuous under her expert guidance. While observing her taking pleasure from the result, I thought to myself that whatever beauty treatments and cosmetic alterations this lady might avail herself of, she would never get rid of that prudish spinster look that fated her to long for men who would never notice her. And even though I would momentarily be taking advantage of that cruel fate and her vulnerability, I could still feel sorry for the virgin -- which I did.

Not quite knowing what to do with her freckled hands out of which sprouted stiff red hairs, she removed what looked like a lab report from her cloth purse, and mechanically began to turn its pages. It presented the perfect pretext to open up a conversation which I was about to do when I suddenly felt a pepper tickle in my nostril, which allowed all of 1/16 of a second before a monstrous sneeze was let loose, sweeping the serviette and malachite ashtray off the table, just as the waiter arrived. "May I take your order, Sir," requested a stolid, unphased feminine voice, as if nothing had happened. That the young man was wearing pants was, I'm sure, more out of duty than inclination. A cloud of Channel No. 5 descended on me. I was dying for a couple of ice-cold beer, but I didn't want my target to think I was low class.

So I ordered a Tia Maria, whatever that was, on ice, and felt like a sissy. The waiter, apparently delighted with my choice, said: "That's my favourite drink. But unfortunately I'm on duty until midnight." He threw back his head in a pout, as if to say c’est la vie, and raised to half mast a supple limp wrist strung with gleaming gold and silver bracelets. He then took the opportunity to bend over to retrieve the fallen ashtray, making sure I got a full glimpse of his buns, and then backing away with a discreet bow, stole a serviette from the neighbour table and with superb nonchalance and deftly restored my table setting to its original immaculateness. "And bring me a barrel of antihistamines," I growled, heterosexually, an intrepid lieutenant leading his troops into blood and glory.

"I must be allergic to one of those plants," was my after-sneeze segue. I angled my chair into the conversation-friendly position and flashed a broad smile and two even rows of cigarette wrecked teeth. The spinster's tofu tinted face began to flush colour and her thick eyebrows began to fuzz like a startled caterpillar waking up to the shadow of the shoe that's about to crush it.

"I have a friend who always sneezes as soon as she steps into the sun," she said unselfconsciously, closing the pages of the report she wasn't reading. "But she refuses to leave L.A. She simply loves it here." The woman's voice was surprisingly calm and self-assured in the eye of the hurricane of masculinity I had just let loose, before which most women would not have been able to maintain their composure.

"I know what you mean," I rejoined sympathetically. "Since my return from Nam, Viet Nam that is, I've come to think of L.A. as a wound that keeps opening up just so people like you and I can feel the pain of others. But not to stroke our consciences, you understand, but to encourage us to do something about the pain. If my instincts are right, I'll bet you're someone who ‘is’ doing something about it." She didn’t answer right away, but looked at me curiously, as an unhandsome smile elongated her already unnaturally long, thin lips.
"You express yourself so eloquently, Mr..?"
"Ax is the name. Jack Ax."
"Mr. Ax."
"Call me Jack."

"I'll try . . . Jack. I'm called Mattie Hexen. My father wanted a son who would have been named Matthew, but he had to settle for a Mattie instead.” She had probably used that same corny line on a 1001 men, intent on demonstrating in as short as time possible that she was weird. But then again, I have probably never met a lonely person who isn’t a bit weird. In the time it takes a bawling baby to get the notice of its mother, (or social worker) I concluded that she wanted to get to know me in a hurry, that a back-log of unspoken confidences were hungering to connect with a sympathetic ear.

"Mattie," I began, letting the syllables of her name roll off my tongue as if they were as dear to me as my epidermis. "If I may take an educated guess as to your mission in life." Here I paused, allowing suspense to develop and my romantic intentions to further dilate and prepare her for my purpose. Despite her dignified bearing, it was evident that she was beside herself with excitement. "I'll bet you're either . . . a lab technician . . . or, a chemist." Unable to contain herself, Mattie's eyelashes, stolen from a vacuum brush, involuntarily flapped twice where she would have wanted them to flutter. I suddenly felt sorry for this woman who had never been held by a man, had never even been the fleeting object of a man's passing fantasy.

"Why Mr. Ax. You suddenly make me feel quite naked. We've only just met and you seem to know all about me."
"Call me Jack, Mattie." A guarded expression came over her, followed by:
"I don't think I can, Mr. Ax. For the same reason I couldn't address he President by his Christian name.” I thought I detected some cloak and dagger in her demur.
"I'm flattered by the unwarranted analogy," I demurred back. "But if the truth be known, the only thing the President and I have in common is the ability to say what we don't mean as if we meant it. Of course, I had no intention of saying what I just said." I laughed uneasily.
"I hope you meant well when you identified me as a chemist?"
"I indeed meant well and must now confess that I had you pegged as a chemist from the first moment because I have a brother who works in a pharmaceutical lab, and coincidentally his lab report book resembles yours in a fashion." She peaked down to make sure the report was closed. She then immediately let it be known that she didn’t want to go into any detail about her work when she declared in the broadest of terms:

"I feel tremendous solidarity and affection for chemists and lab technicians everywhere in the world, Mr. Ax. We are the butt of much ridicule and humour, most of it in poor taste, while quietly making the world a safer place to live. No doubt, a lament you've heard on many occasions from your brother."

"Especially from my brother, Mattie. It's his calling, or perhaps I should say his misfortune, to be involved in experiments which entail the sacrificing of animals. He feels in the strongest language that it is more humane to subject animals to necessary pain and death instead of good people like you and me. And for his efforts and humanity, he has received death threats from animal rights activists. But not one of them has yet volunteered to take the place of that dear animal for the sake of progress -- nor refused the advances in health care made possible by those same experiments. I tell you, there's no accounting for human ignorance and hypocrisy. I suppose your field of research isn't as controversial?"

"Well. I wouldn't say that. If I may be frank, Mr. Ax., I'm not allowed to discuss my work."
"Top secret?"
"I'm afraid so."
"Government stuff?"

"I’m sorry, Mr. Ax. I just can’t." Her arm was barred across the title of the report, prompting me to remark:
"I couldn't help but to notice that your lab titles are similar to my brother's. Wouldn't it be a coincidence if you both worked for same employer." Like a driver suddenly jerking the wheel to avoid an accident, Mattie abruptly flipped face down the lab report, but I had already noticed that the title was comprised of a 3-letter, 3-digit code. I surmised the codes were used for top-secret documents and research projects.

"I didn't mean to pry, Mattie," who suddenly became apologetic, stuffing the report into her purse.
"No no no, Mr. Ax. It's me. To be perfectly honest, we're not allowed to remove special project data from the lab, but I am determined to meet a particular dead-line that has been shrunk to the point of insult. It was unforgivably foolish of me to have exposed this in public -- at the risk of my own and my employer's reputation.

"If only all people working in highly sensitive areas of research were as conscientious as yourself. Especially in a world where leaks are becoming a growth industry. By my reckoning, the nerve centers of our great nation can only sustain so many leaking toilets before the whole country begins to stink, if you'll excuse the indelicacy." Mattie's face flushed.

"But there are no leaks in my line of work, Mr. Ax." Her features tightened up into a defiant straight-arm, while her eyes took on the gleam of refrigerated metal. “In my line of work,” she declaimed, “private sector leaks are dealt with harshly. If you don't play by the rules it’s at your own risk”

No sooner had the point been made like a duty discharged when this delicate creature began clutching at herself, rolling her watery eyes in their sockets, grotesque gestures meant, I suppose, to bewitch the opposite sex. The loneliness that issued from her was so powerful I was convinced she would have opened up to any man offering only a fraction of the attention I was lavishing on her. In fact I was entertaining, as a fantasy, the thought of reaching over and cosseting her hand, but in consideration of what now constitutes sexual harassment, I vetoed the initiative.

Mattie next began to sip her drink oddly, floating her thin lower lip along the lip of the glass as if an exotic taste lay there waiting to be discovered. If this was yet another bizarre exhibition of the art of seduction, I had to admire her staying power, her indefatigably riding the horse of hope through the longest night whose favourite fiction was the promise of a handsome knight. Sitting there, she made me realize that, be as it may that we are all mortal, hope is immortal, and helps to make bearable even the most prolonged suffering. And believe me, this woman had suffered, and through no fault of her own. It was simply her fate to be cast as the ugly duckling, born to cause men to avert their eyes; and that was that.

How true it is that so much in life depends on the roll of the dice. The biggest event in our lives -- where we are born -- is determined by pure chance, pure luck: bad luck to be born in an excrement-decimated squatter's colony in India, or good luck to be born into affluence and opportunity.

I would have communicated something to that effect but didn't want to intimidate her with my worldliness, or make her feel self-conscious about the loneliness, the spinsterness that stuck to her like the scent of moth-balls on wool.
Steering clear of the subject of her lab work with calculated expertise, we were exchanging light banter and badinage over a wide range of incidental topics, made even more interesting by her surprising show of wit and being well-informed where I wasn't, when she suddenly rose and held out her hand in a departing gesture. "I'm sorry to have to conclude what has been a most pleasant conversation, Mr. Ax. But my husband and daughters have arrived."
She waved through the tinted window at her husband who was waiting outside, handsome enough to be billboarding for brand name jeans or Armani underwear (shirt open, bronzed like a god), and her lovely, coltish pubescent daughters, the very best of what adolescence has to offer.

I thanked Mattie Hexen for the pleasure and privately mused at how easy it had been to extract what would later prove to be vital information.


Cheyenne's mojave-brushed, adobe bungalow, set in a square of sand and sagebrush, brightly lit at night from bell-shaped lamps hanging from roof-high cacti, in West Hollywood just behind Las Cienagas and Wilshire, was richly furnished.

I pressed on the bell, which was more like a buzzer, and was buzzed back like at an apartment. I opened the door and stepped into a soft light and even softer carpet. A tired voice that seemed to issue from the bottom of a well invited me to leave my shoes and socks at the entrance. At the entrance, I sat myself down on a smallish leather-upholstered footstool which started squeaking, kicked off my shoes, yanked off my not-quite-dry socks that smelled a tad funky, and decided to air out a bit before making my grand entrance. As I stepped into the outer living room area, I was immediately struck by the light was diffuse and sheer, like a negligee or stocking, and the walls were done in a misty blue, suggesting that nowhere place where the sky and the sea dissolve into each other. The illusion of vast space was exhilarating. “What are you waiting for?” said the weary voice. I tried to rub my feet dry – but to no avail, and decided to let the carpet do its work. Seconds later, I was in a different world. The plush wall-to-wall mauve carpet felt like cool grass under bare feet, and combined with the sensuous beat of airy samba and the scent of sativa, my imagination began to conjure up fantasies of silk robes and sex slaves; or, in the absence of the latter, a languorous evening in the company of consenting adults looking to replete themselves with pleasures ordinarily dispersed over a two week honeymoon.

I was expecting Cheyenne to make no secret of her intention to have me in bed for a voluptuous interlude before taking up the business at hand. Which left me in a delicate situation. I couldn't let on that I was connected to Cat, to whom she had already lost one (testosterone-timid) man, because any revelation that would risk leaving her unwilling to provide the information I required would be self-defeating. Diplomacy and job consideration dictated that she must not find out -- at least tonight -- that Cat and I were as tight as the chain that keeps the earth in its orbit, that I had become, almost overnight, a one-woman man. And while Cheyenne was undeniably attractive in a way that only comes with maturity, the idea of giving in to her advances, or, (acknowledging a paper-thin ego), taking an easy conquest for the sake of one, left a bad taste in my mouth, which only a bucket of foam-rich, imported beer could wash away. But to refuse her advances would leave the taste of rejection on her palate, and cause her to be pro-actively disinclined to share confidences I desperately needed. What to do? I suppose if push came to shove, I could always tap the excuse that my head wounds had taken their toll, and that all romantic insinuations were ‘regrettably’ out of the question -- until we meet again, thank you, Roy.

These concerns proved to be irrelevant as I entered the living room. Not bothering to look up from the 2-seater sofa into which she was sunk, Cheyenne was wrapped up in a stiff quilted robe whose sex appeal recalled the category of meddling, puritanical mothers-in-law. Her hair, rendered hoary by the light, was messy and tied up at the back with a thick, gummy elastic. Without make-up, she almost looked plain and very much her age -- let’s say 43. Only long, shapely legs, which the robe, either shrunk from numerous washings or cut for someone half her height, served notice that she was still highly desirable -- even on a bad day.

I was surprised to find this health fiend nursing an ashtray full of Camel butts and a drink.

I made it seem, as if out of politeness, that it was only proper to face the person with whom I would be speaking, so I went to sit on the opposing, matching sofa. An elegant, octagonal, mahogany coffee table marked a buffer zone between us, even though hostilities hadn’t yet been declared. She sank herself further into the squeaky, smooth leather, which had the effect of pulling her robe up even higher over her nice knees, and began unapologetically: "To be honest, Brick, I had forgotten about our rendezvous."

"And I had forgotten how good-looking you are," I said, hoping to cheer her up. The intended compliment arrived like a door being slammed shut on an unwelcome visitor.
"And I had forgotten how easily men lie," she pit-bulled back. Her mood was as agreeable as poison ivy on someone’s private parts. I watched her eyes withdraw until they turned into black smudges. They were so severe and spiteful I had to turn away. "It's been a long time since a man has seen me looking like this," she said flatly. I suppose she meant haggard, unkept. "A long long time. But I must confess. I'm rather surprised at how infrequently I miss men. But let me reassure you that despite my advancing age, I am not short of hot-blooded male attention."
"I divined that the first time I laid eyes on you."

"And now that you've laid your eyes on me a second time?" When I couldn't think of an appropriate rejoinder, she slipped into her Lady Macbeth persona, and laughed the kind of laugh that thrives on someone else's discomfort – just to make it worse. She then fell silent, which made me even more uncomfortable, until she mercifully stood up and went to the bar directly behind me to pour herself another drink. "And I suppose you'd like a beer?" she inquired blandly.

"As a matter of fact, I'm as thirsty as Death Valley in July." She placed an unopened bottle and no glass on the coffee table, and, inconsiderate of my guest status, emitted a small burp and flopped herself back onto the sofa as if she were chucking trash into a bin. I could have taken offence that she judged I was classless enough not to care about a glass, but I figured why fool myself. It's enough to know that I change my underwear everyday -- and all the rest is appearances.

Dodging the acid-sharp ejaculations of her spleenish humour, I tried to determine how much alcohol she might have consumed, which in her case was almost an impossible task because she possessed the kind of intelligence that could withstand almost every imaginable assault, self-inflicted or otherwise. But I concluded she had drunk enough not to care about the negative impression she was leaving. After all, she could have excused herself to change into something more becoming, or held in check a shrewishness that was making me wish I had been born earless in L.A. -- but she couldn't be bothered. When a woman shows little or no concern for her vanity (her affect on men), she's either very stressed out, or has had too much to drink -- or both. She presently crossed her long legs and folded her arms across her chest like an angry school teacher.

"And what do you expect to find tonight?"
"A detective learns to expect nothing but the worst in his fellow creatures; and he learns to be content with the smallest clue."
"And if you could order your clue, what would it be?"
"A map leading to the whereabouts of Bart-Bell."
"You can be sure that he left his forwarding address in his gym locker," she said blandly. Cheyenne's churlish sarcasm was as bitter as a lemon having a bad day on a tree ravaged by blight. By contrast, Hamlet seemed manic. But whether she was angry at me in particular, or I was just a convenient scapegoat, was beyond the powers to determine. But undeterred by a mood that could make laughing gas go sour, I persisted with my game plan.
"I wouldn't mind checking out the lockers of your employees, if you don't mind."
"Be my guest. But you're not going to find anything but sweaty jock straps, miniature pharmacies and nude pictures of themselves pumping everything but their wrinkled dicks." Cheyenne's bawdy language and no-nonsense anatomical observations were not lacking in entertainment value.
"You're well informed," was all I could say.
"What do you mean by that?" she snapped like a rusty scissors on a throat.
"Correct me if I'm wrong, Cheyenne," I began, waxing conciliatory, "but if I'm detecting some irritation in your voice and being the cause of it, I would be more than happy to make whatever adjustments are necessary. Would you like me to leave?"
The effect of my modest tenor and silky turn of phrase was immediate, a mirror into which Cheyenne was suddenly drawn and devoured; and she didn't like what she saw.
"I'm sorry, Brick," she said, in a quieter voice. " I've had a long long day: a day that has taught me that the only person I can count on in this world is my little own self."
"Would you like to talk about it?"
"I hardly know you."
"People pay top dollar to talk to strangers.
"I may have had a bad day, Brick, but I don't need a shrink or a priest -- at least for the time being.” She raised her glass and began swishing the ice cubes around before setting it down, untouched. And then she looked at me, but this time not as a convenience onto whom she could download her frustrations, but as a real person. “Speaking of bad days, what happened to your sorry looking head?" I thought I detected an actual look of alarm momentarily come over her features as she glanced at the bandages.
"Head-hunters who found what they were looking for."
"I'll say. That's a nasty gash you've got there."
"Nothing another beer won't cure."
"I suppose it's related to Bart?"
"Either that or I'm making the herbicide-pesticide lobby nervous."
"Whoever it was obviously means business. Wouldn't it be easier for them to either hire or bribe you? Isn't that what they usually do?" she proposed, slipping back into her icy, calculating manner.
"Do I strike you as someone who would accept a bribe?"
"As a matter of fact, yes," she said, after mulling it over for a millisecond. Her first smile of the evening was charged with conspiracy. For a moment she looked like the Mother of all evil -- or had I caught my own reflection in her eye. "Sometimes we owe it to ourselves to look after ourselves when no one else will," she ventured.
"There are, I suppose, situations in life which oblige us to abandon our beliefs, or to deputize others more worthy than ourselves to act as role-models."
"You should have gone into law or advertising, Brick. You have the uncanny ability of making the ugly sides of our nature seem so proper and dignified."
"I'm just trying to stay within myself, Cheyenne, while holding no illusions of what kind of world we live in. Being a detective, you understand, requires me to follow rules that don’t always reflect what have come to be identified as traditional family values.”
"Well don't let me stand in your way."
"I was hoping you would be more accommodating."
"I poured my heart out to you earlier in the day."
"That was then and now is now." She lit up cigarette.

"What can I tell you, Brick. This is the only place on the planet where I feel comfortable enough to assume the real me. And the ‘me’ that’s before you this evening has had a rough time of it lately. A very rough time. Surely you can appreciate that it's only natural to be overcome with mixed emotions from time to time. I guess I sometimes still love Bart, but hate him for leaving me like he did, for humiliating me. Has a woman ever left you for a ‘thinner’ man? Has a woman ever cheated on you?"

"To be honest, Cheyenne. I might deserve all those things, but so far, I've been spared."
"It'll happen one day. You can bet on it." She suddenly made me feel big and swollen, like a sausage about to burst its skin. My collar felt two sizes too big and my belt was begging for another notch. To relieve my discomfort, I sent my eyes on a lengthy tour of the den and dining room.
"You should have been an interior decorator," I approved. "Everything is just right fine here."
"I do my best. After long days in the gym, coming home to this is therapeutic."
"I love the smell of new furniture. Especially leather." I inhaled deeply.
"The smell of leather reminds me of wild animals getting it on."

Her flatly delivered comment, while referring to animal sex, was completely devoid of sexual feeling. So I decided to ignore the reference to the reproductive patterns in the wild kingdom, and suggested:
"So in your case, booming business translates into expensive leather." As soon as I spoke I realized the remark was about as subtle as the sound track of jack-hammers blasting away in the reading room of a library. Cheyenne would not have forgotten that she had complained about the bottom line earlier in the day, and now had to account for her expensive tastes. If looks could kill, I was one ventilated detective. I should have known that you never put someone to whom you are beholding on the spot.

One of the worst things about being a good detective is that in the course of a career you come to regard yourself as nothing more than a crow-bar bent on opening up everything that doesn’t want to be opened. And that’s how in sometimes seconds good friends suddenly become distant friends, and mere friends disappear forever.
It was now doubtful that I would get any information out of Cheyenne who was making me feel that I was an annoyance that had to be tolerated until she could get rid of me. "Business can always improve," she said evasively. "And when it does, I'm going to change the drapes and the light fixtures."

By my imprecise reckoning, the drapes looked as new as everything else in the room. But I decided not to press the matter, knowing that Cheyenne was smart enough to wriggle out of any tight squeeze and could prevaricate as easily as cement sinks in water. Despite her unease, I still wasn’t prepared to conclude there could be a connection between her accepting fifty thousand in cash and Bart-Bell's disappearance.

Cheyenne suddenly suggested we leave and excused herself to change into jodhpurs, sandals, and a leather, sleeveless, snap-vest.

The unsuspecting neighbour observing us through the slit of not quite drawn curtains across the street would observe a handsome couple walking leisurely towards their car, and a gentleman opening the door and helping his lady friend get comfortably seated.

The change of clothes and outside air did her some good, which is to say she didn't open her mouth during the drive, except to ask if I had a Michael Franks cassette. When I confessed I had never heard the name, she looked at me as if to say: "What incredible stroke of bad luck has put me on the same planet as this uncultured slob." Allowing her ungracious grimace only its smallest effect, I parried her reproof by opening the glove compartment that was stuffed, not with music cassettes, but with my favourite chocolate bars featuring cholesterol-free peanuts. "With all due respect to Mick Franks," I smirked, making sure she saw it, "I prefer stomach music." In a somewhat exaggerated manner, I extracted one of the bars and proceeded to shred the wrapper with my very capable primate’s teeth. “Don’t be shy,” I offered. “One can never ingest to much fibre.” Cheyenne stole a glance at my enormous paunch spilling out beneath the tucks of my shirt, and as if to put an end to what had been a long and unrewarding day, leaned her head back against the head rest and closed her eyes.

It was about 1 am when we arrived at The Deltoid. From what I could see in the darkness of night, the shopping mall had seen better days. The parking lot which was lit up by a single 10 watt bulb was deserted save for a few municipal garbage cans, one of which hadn’t been overturned. Always the lady, Cheyenne waited for me to open her door, and began explaining that half the mall's commercial space was vacant, that its two restaurants owed their livelihood to her clientele. "The owner of this place should pay me not to leave," she said, cynically.
"Would you consider moving?"

"Damn rights," she snapped. "Into another line of business that caters to ‘normal’ people. Cheyenne, who was attracted to men 20 years younger than herself, and was still in love with a guy whose gonads were in permanent comatosis, was playing the ‘normality’ card for all it was worth. Not wanting to further aggravate her, I kept my tongue in harness and a watchful eye on the exposed area around us (we were sitting ducks for a mugging). In the meantime, Cheyenne was fiddling with the keys, one of which she turned to the right, the other to the left, and waited for the telling click. She then pulled open the door and quickly punched in a 5-digit code to shut off the alarm.
In almost complete darkness, even darker than the poorly lit colonnade that ran along the entire length of the mall, she led me across the work-out area which gave off that peculiar gym smell, past the heavy equipment corner, and finally to her office whose locked door she opened with another key. She then went to her desk, switched on the tensor lamp, and with yet another key, opened the right-center drawer, from which she extracted a 10-page computer print-out of the club's membership. Beside each name were separate columns for address, phone number, vital physical statistics, fee schedule, and locker number.

"Employees only?" she asked, sliding the print-out into the narrow focus of the lamp.
"That'll do for now." On note paper, she wrote down the names of: Bart-Bell, Phidias Anomalitis, Flex Knuckelkopf, and Jane Hair -- and their locker numbers.

"We'll go downstairs and check the men's side first." Cheyenne had just relocked her office when from the other end of the work-out area we heard what sounded like a door squeaking. Our eyes met and froze. "I know that sound," she whispered. "It's the emergency back-door exit." Responding to the territorial imperative rather than the possibility of a violent confrontation, Cheyenne intrepidly sped across the long floor, past the workout machines, turning left down a half-flight of stairs. She waited for me to catch up, and catch my breath, and then slowly pushed down on the metal latch that released the door. It made that same squeaking sound.

"Do you have a flashlight?" I asked, in a low voice. She nodded affirmative. I stepped outside. "He couldn’t have gone far, which means he won’t dare move." Cheyenne nodded and dashed back to her office for the flashlight.
My eyes slowly adjusted to the dark, unlit alley. I could barely make out the row of low-income tenement housing showing the occasional small square of window light. Scattered in the alley, or gaps and cutaways of the buildings, was a helter-skelter of broken shapes and unnameable objects: and there were lots of places to hide -- until day break, if need be. In what seemed like only seconds, Cheyenne, breathing heavily, handed over a tube flashlight whose batteries were a bit low.

From where we were standing, just outside the door, I began fanning the light concentrically, and then leftward down the longest stretch of alley. Cheyenne gripped my shoulder, making me thankful for the break-in that we had happened upon, which had the effect of vanquishing her bileful mood and refocusing her attention to the immediate present dangers at hand.

The flashlight’s pale beam uncovered garbage cans, wet cardboard boxes collapsing into their contents, plastic bags shredded by stray cats and homeless dogs, bent bicycle frames, and even a stripped car in what was once a parking spot just opposite us. We crossed the alley and looked into the car. The body of a man, either sleeping or dead, was curled up on the back seat, newspaper spread over his upper body and face. The paper's headline read: Corporations reap record profits, and in the body of the report, a picture of Bill Gates handing over a check to leper colony rep. We have indeed come a long way, I mused to myself: from the Iron Age to the age of irony. From that same back seat, a liftless, rancid fart cultured in the leftovers of egg, tuna and red beans interrupted our meditation on the man's pathetic plight. Holding my breath, I noted to myself, and not without surprise, that the flatulence was actually worse than my own.

We advanced slowly down the lane. From a nearby window we could hear the sudden pitch of angry voices, a domestic dispute between a man and a woman, and the cry of a small child piercing the silent night like a knife on a woman's throat. "This place gives me the creeps," said Cheyenne, gripping me tighter.
"It's the dreaming hour," I replied.

"That's what I'm afraid of. Bad dreams." We continued to uncover more of the dirty secrets of the inner-city: the sores and scabs usually seen (and ignored) by daylight. The mood was tense, punctuated by stillness and the crunching sound of our shoes treading over the sand swept alleyway. Not far from us a car started up and peacefully purred away into the ominous night.

"He's either here, or ‘she’ isn't" I deduced out loud, allowing equal opportunity for gender; and a detective's right to state what is self-evident in the way he sees fit. "And if he is here, he's probably prepared to wait until dawn -- and I'm definitely not."

"That makes two of us," chimed in Cheyenne in a loud whisper, elated to learn that I wasn’t your typical textbook detective looking to play the hero.
"How many people besides yourself know the alarm code?"
"These four," she replied, waving the note paper, and the night janitor."
"The janitor?"

"He's a seventy years old man, with a learning disability.” She said I couldn't help but to think of our former President.
We turned around and retraced our steps. As we got closer to the back entrance, Cheyenne’s fear diminished and her grip relented. In an almost normal voice, she began to explain: "The intruder could have been anyone who simply waited until he knew the place would be empty, and wouldn't care one way or the other about the alarm. It takes only seconds to get away, while it takes the cops at least thirty minutes to find this neighbourhood -- and they always arrive in a minimum of two cop cars which, of course, presents major coordination problems." Cheyenne’s equal opportunity sarcasm left no aspect of life untouched. Either friend or enemy, there was no escaping it, and when it arrived it cut to the quick. I could only think of one thing worse: getting examined by a proctologist with a taste for the bizarre.

With yet another key, she let us back into the club. "Let's check the lockers," she suggested, vaguely fed up. With nothing but a weak beam from the flashlight, I followed her to the stairs that were to the right just behind the semi-circle of the reception area.

Descending into the windowless basement, my nostrils were stung by the combination of shower mould and soggy towels reeking like they had been used to sop up urine and the sharp bite of chlorine. By comparison, my unwashed armpit smelled like a field of fresh flowers – well almost. Even Cheyenne, presumably habituated to the awful stench, turned away from it. "You'll find the woman's side somewhat improved," she offered as a consolation prize. At the bottom of the stairs, in pitch black (the flashlight had stopped working), Cheyenne fumbled for the light switch.
Even while our eyes were adjusting to the florescent glare, we could see that three lockers had been busted open. They had been snipped with lock cutters. Cheyenne calmly compared their numbers to her list. "Wouldn't you know it. Bart, Flex and Phidias. I'm impressed, Brick. You're obviously on to something."

"You're right. If only I knew what it was."

The entire contents of the lockers had been spilled out and left in a sprawling mess on the floor. Breathing through my mouth again, a trick I learned in Nam when stumbling upon decomposing corpses, I went through every stinking item, not knowing what I was looking for, but not wanting to miss something if it was there. Bart-Bell's locker, in particular, had been frisked finer than a body suspected of carrying illicit drugs in its private parts. Cans of protein food, vitamins, medicine vials had all been opened and dumped on the floor. The intruder was looking for something in particular, and apparently small enough to be kept in a pill container.

We passed through the sauna that divided the downstairs into two, and entered the woman's side; the smell there was only marginally less offending than the men's.

It came as no surprise that Jane Hair's locker had been plundered, its abundant contents strewn over a wide area. I first of all examined her make-up paraphernalia, and then the muscle toning pill vials, the vitamin containers, and a first-aid kit. From the pile, I separated five pair of string panties that fitted over body suits and leggings, a couple of stretch-twilled halter-tops, perfumes, a razor, ankle weights, heat patches, wrist rope and French stockings. Left intact on the locker's inner door was a black and white photo of the skin-headed, fierce looking Jane Hair, arms tightly folded over her naked breasts, her muscular leg and foot pressing down on the throat of a naked, prostrated, male body builder.

"Jane knows how to look after herself," I remarked.
"She has a lot of admirers on both sides of the sauna."
I chuckled, admiring Jane's state-of-the-art stomach, the sinewy neck and throat, the angry flare of her nostrils, the tough gleam in her eye, the paper thin cut of her eyebrows.
"What's the connection between this and my employees, Brick?"

"There was something about Phidias this morning that rubbed me the wrong way. He was overplaying his unfriendliness which got me to wondering if there might not be some sort of link between him and his muscle-envious colleagues and Bart's disappearance. But I sure as hell didn't expect this. What's clear is that one of these four was suspected of being in possession of something (I don't know what) important enough for this to have happened. And whether this has everything or nothing to do with rice remains to be determined.”
"So where do we go from here?"
"I'm not sure yet. But before you report this, I'd like to look over your membership list."
"Sure thing. And don’t worry about this. I'll keep this hushed until tomorrow morning."

Again in total darkness we felt our way up stairs, breathing in noticeably improved air with each step. In the office, for what seemed like the hundredth time in the past hour, Cheyenne went through the ritual of opening door locks and unlocking drawers, finally extracting a computer print-out.

Going through the alphabetic list of names was about as exciting as going through a phone book. That is until I came to the letter H: and the name of Mattie Hexen. A sweaty shiver went up my spine. This was stranger than fiction, except this fiction had long ago exhausted its reserve of credible coincidences.

Not wanting to arouse any suspicion, I took a mental snapshot of Mattie’s profile, and quickly flipped the page like an adolescent sneaking a quick peak at a ‘girlie magazine.’ As it turned out, Cheyenne wasn't even paying attention. Her long legs were comfortably stretched out beneath the desk, her eyes half closed. "Any bites?" she inquired lazily, fighting back a yawn.

"Not in these waters," I griped, secretly wondering why Mattie Hexen, who lived and worked ten miles from here, would choose, of all places, The Deltoid to workout on a body that buzzards wouldn’t look at.


In what would turn out to be one of his last thoughts ever, Bart-Bell, or Torso as he was called by his familiars, not quite discouraged by the recent succession of bad days (and nights) that had caught up with him, was thinking how those not quite forgotten bad days were in fact days of heaven compared to the bad day he was now having -- and would soon get a lot worse.

In the poorly lit room, it was even darker beneath the thick tape wound around his eyes, nose and forehead. And his situation didn't permit that ‘peace of mind’ that would help him to remember that he hated to breathe through his mouth.

His powerful arms were tightly tied behind his back, and then to the chair, and his thick legs and ankles fastened with hairy rope to the chair's cold metal legs. He winced as a belt slashed across his face; and then he heard the scraping sound of dull scissors slicing the pant legs off his muscular, west-coast bronzed thighs.

"Talk to me, Torso," pleaded the familiar voice. "Everybody knows you're too dumb to do what you've been doing. You know it’s not cool to bad mouth innocent rice people. You know better than that. Who put you up to it?" Torso felt blood oozing out of the gash on his cheek. "Now be a good boy and tell me who leaked the information?” And when no answer was forthcoming -- “Come on, man. Spare yourself the pain. No one likes pain. Not even you, tough guy. You don't like this, do you, do you?"

Torso's Grand Inquisitor spat on him, whacked his face a half a dozen times with his hand of many rings, then kicked him hard in the shins with a steel-toed cowboy boot. Torso didn't utter a syllable, but began panting like an animal backed into a corner, and began rotating his head like a blind man laughing or crying. "Why are you saving their asses, you dumb fuck? Save your own for fuck sake. They're just using you." The familiar voice was convinced that Torso wouldn't be so stupid to die to protect someone whom he had probably only met on one or two occasions.
But Torso knew better. He would show them all that his convictions would outlast all the evil they had in store for him. He would show them that as strong as his body was, his mind was even stronger, and his belief and commitment to the cause (to prevent corporate America from poisoning its citizenry) made him as ready as a soldier to give his one and only life for his country.

As the pain became almost unbearable, in the interval between screaming and willing himself not to scream, he began to pity the voice reigning blow after blow upon him, because he understood that the voice wasn't acting on its own, but was hired to do the dirty work for the invisible, omnipotent power brokers enforcing their will. He understood that corporate America would stop at nothing to protect its interests, that his life was as meaningless as a long-legged fly paused on a stream.

"Talk to me, Torso. Give me the name of your source and I'll let you go home and you can catch the last half of the game. I don't want to do what I'm going to have to do unless you make me do it. Do you understand me for fuck sake. You're making me do it. I don't want to do it, but you're making me do it you sick, pathetic fuck face, you." Torso felt the flat, smooth cool of steel against his throat. "Well, my friend. If you ever had any thoughts about taking up the piano, you had better think again -- tough guy." The familiar voice laughed. It was a hateful laugh, the kind that has been on a slow-burn for a long time; and now its day has come. And wouldn't be stopped because it would never recognize itself as self-hatred and envy gone berserk. And it wouldn't relent until it had totally devoured its object.

Torso's blanched, bloodless hands are already numb from the deathly tight rope choking the blood supply to his strangled wrists. He hears the voice’s heavy breathing, and then the voice grabs his hand and yanks back its middle finger, and begins to stroke it tenderly. "Once, twice, three times a lady. Bye bye," says the voice, chuckling. Torso feels the cool blade at the base of his middle finger, it slicing through skin, the resistance of the bone, the impatient slicing back and forth scraping sound through the bone, hot liquid squirting out of the finger that is no longer there. Torso is surprised that it is almost painless, but he feels his heart thumping madly and a deafening throbbing in his temples. His eyes begin to water. He now knows he has to die.

"Don't make me do this, Torso. It really breaks my heart to see you lose all your natural strength like this. But what can I tell you. You've simply got to learn to help yourself in tight situations. And all of this for sissy rice? You need help, man. You are one fucked-up, mother fucker." Breathing easier now, the voice takes the blade and begins shredding Toro’s biceps, triceps and quadriceps. Torso suddenly starts screaming. He is afraid he might talk, but the Grand Interrogator is no longer asking him to talk. He has lost sight of the information he is supposed to extract. He has never seen so much blood before, and is fascinated by the liquid red gushing out everywhere, that human life without this mysterious liquid turns into death. It's so simple he can't believe it. And doesn't. "Dying can't be that simple," he wonders to himself.

The knife is now slashing the tendons and veins just beneath the knee cap. Blood is spurting out in little jets. The mad inquisitor doesn't even hear the witness’ hysterical shrieking.

Just as Torso fears he's about to speak the truth, something snaps and he retains the image of a woman he hasn't seen for what seems like an eternity. He wants to make up for that lost time, and promises to never leave her.
He doesn't bother to know or care what they’re doing to him now. He look into the serene pools of her eyes and she looks into his; it's so peaceful on the sun-dappled lake reflecting the deep green of the willow trees and the lazy rise of the surrounding meadow. The knife, flaying like a fan, continues to cut. The voice is yelling into his ear which he hears fall to the floor. Instruments are being dug and twisted into his arms, shoulders, chest and thighs; and even when the knife is plunged and twisted into his eyes, nothing can darken the dancing light that warms the lake that holds their naked bodies. The day lasts forever.

The familiar voice, now familiar only unto itself, steps back to better examine its handiwork. He observes a bloodied head slumped forward with a candle expiring in it: body and soul are floating on a pool of blood that he'll have to mop up.

An hour later, on the phone, he is explaining to his boss that Torso wouldn't talk, that he didn't exactly mean to do what he thinks he did, but Torso decided to play it tough. During the next and last call he'll ever make from that grim room, he is given explicit instructions on how to dispose of the body.


Despite the apparent disconnect of events, I felt I was only a break away from getting a hand on this bizarre case, and would soon catch up with the elusive Bart-Bell.

Among the many details left to consider was the possible connection between Bart-Bell and Mattie Hexen. Now that sex, after a couple of tough millennia, had finally escaped from the dictatorship of ethics and morals, and consenting adults were free to pursue their preferences all of which were equally valid, one had to give serious consideration to the possibility that Mattie Hexen had joined the society of Jane Hair and her many admirers. Still, it was tough going trying to imagine Hair taking an interest in Hexen, whose sex appeal was about as arresting as a philosophical exegesis on Being and Nothingness. But then again, Mattie had managed to get her hands on a man (her husband of 19 years) handsome enough to ruffle the feathers of Brad Pitt (who admits to being ticklish) -- or was that just for show. Maybe Mattie's neutrality was a turn on for Jane Hair, for whom men were merely sore throats to be stepped on.
I still couldn't get that locker photo of Jane Hair out of my mind. Her body was so cold it reminded me of a Canadian hockey rink (in June), and that flat stomach of hers was more science than flesh.

If it was completely out of character for me to take a disliking of somebody I hadn't even met, it was probably because she was one (estrogen-short) lady whom I would never get into the sack; and, of course, every dull hetro thinks every lessie is secretly dying to have a man thrashing inside her.

So I decided that a meeting with Jane Hair might be informative and prevailed on Cheyenne to set up a rendez-vous, suggesting I be introduced as a consulting chef for a muscle magazine.

I was thinking of wrapping up the day but I was curious to know if there were any messages left at my office. In consideration of the late hour and vivid memories of the violence that had been done unto me the previous day, I decided to postpone the visit until the light of day, which would be the next day.
When I got back home, Cat was fast sleep in front of the TV she had wheeled into the bedroom: which meant the idiot box was getting all the attention it deserved.

I took a quick shower and long snack, and was getting ready to snuggle up to Cat when my all-time favourite TV show was just starting up: GET SMART. Even though I had seen this particular episode at least 10 times (Max and 99 in Casablanca), and knew every gag by heart, I found myself laughing as if I was watching it for the first time. In fact, anticipating a gag made me laugh even harder. But laughter aside, while agent 86 had surely, during his illustrious career as a Chaos-breaker, eliminated hundreds of enemy agents in the line of duty, it was his consummate humanity that never failed to bring a lump to my throat and recommended him to audiences everywhere. And crazy as it must seem, to this very day, I still look up to that fictional character as an icon of sorts -- grace and girth differential notwithstanding. And while my night-table should have included at least one photo of the many women who have insisted on leaving their portraits with me, there was only consideration for a 10 by 14 black and white of Maxwell, smartly set off in a gilded frame (from Montgomery Ward), two lit cigarettes in hand, his generous spirit undaunted by the guffawing multitudes.

The following morning, after a torrid session of pre-dawn Kama Sutra, Cat stole into the kitchen during my second nap, squeezed juice from eight oranges, and then announced breakfast was being served. I should have stayed in bed.
When it became apparent that my entire breakfast would add up to no more than 30 calories, hardly enough to wake up a hamster, involuntary muscle memory sent wafting into my twitching nostrils the delicious aroma of bacon and eggs frying in the pan, served with a stack of butter-soaked toast. For a drooling second or two, I thought my saliva glands had become Roman aqueducts. "Enjoying your breakfast, Brick?" Cat asked, warily.
"You might have sprinkled it with sea-weed," I grunted humourlessly, lighting up a cigarette that had been ripped free from its filter.

"You'll be thanking me soon enough. You just wait and see." When the rites of breakfast has been dutifully performed, it was with mixed feelings I decided to let Cat accompany me to the office. While her unrelenting diet diatribes were beginning to grate on my empty stomach, it was nothing less than a dream-turned-real having such a beautiful companion sidling up me, whom I could fondle at my bidding, which meant ducking into a hot-dog joint for sustenance would now have to be done on the sly.

Now don't get me wrong. I am as game as the next 250 pound weight-challenged slob when it comes to the ‘idea’ of dropping a couple. But I was convinced that Cat's plan for rapid weight reduction was downright unhealthy; the quart of mayonnaise that rarely lasted longer than a week or two was as important to my psychological well-being as everyman’s morning cup of coffee, which is to say, my better self was urging me to follow my instincts, which meant the health food stores would have to wait.

The drive to the office beneath a brooding sky turned out to be an unjoyous occasion as I made it clear that I was in no mood for conversation. I didn't want to waste what few precious calories I was allotted in forming syllables.
Twenty minutes later we turned into a street lined with warehouses. The building in which my office was located was a brown brick affair, much blackened from pollution, probably enjoying a 10% occupancy rate. I was surprised the building's elevator was actually working and even more surprised that Cat forwent the stairs. And I couldn’t believe my good fortune upon discovering that my office hadn’t been burglarized: at first glance, everything seemed as I had left it. "Did someone ransack your office, Brick?" asked Cat, stepping over Styrofoam cups, magazines, unsolicited mail -- and beer bottles.

"I guess being well organized isn't my most conspicuous virtue," I answered back, a bit put off. The floor was as littered as a Florida beach on a hot day. "God damn wind," I cursed, shutting (and blaming) the open window.
"Have you ever considered butting out your cigarettes in an ashtray," she proposed, a born-again princess of sarcasm.
"Yah. I've considered it." I refrained from sharing my somewhat broad definition of ashtray. While Cat began tidying up, I played back the messages on the answering machine.

The first message was from an old flame named Fauna whom I could hardly remember. Not one to mintz her words, she matter of factly proposed that we conceive a child together -- and then left her number.

With Cat on her tip-toes, stretching to make disappear some odds and ends into a high cupboard, her short skirt risen up to the top of her firm thighs, conception struck me as an immaculate course to pursue -- right here and now.
Cat's response to the ‘father-my-child’ message was serene. Exuding quiet confidence, she turned around and playfully cocked her hip. Then fixing me with her opalesque eyes she advised: “And you had better get used to the idea that I’m planning to be the last woman in your life. OK?” Without having to utter a syllable, she was made to understand that it was an arrangement that suited me just fine.

The second message was from Mort Ives. Speaking in an anxious, husky whisper, he said he was calling from a pay phone and that I was to drive out to his place as soon as possible, not to phone his home, and to come alone.
Cat turned serious. I replayed the message. Ives was shook up to the point that his voice was trembling, which had the effect of draining Cat of her normally healthy complexion.

Without even thinking about it, I knew what I had to do. "I gotta go right away, honey." I announced. “Something’s gone wrong. Real wrong.”
"I'm afraid for you, Brick."
“He needs my help, Cat.” We left the office and hit the road.

In the car, Cat didn't say a word, but held on to my arm like she was never going to let go. She knew I had made up my mind, and like anyone who takes it upon himself to wage the big one against the flaws of the species, she knew all to well how expendable I was, and that I was as insignificant as the nameless legions of men and women who have who have fought and died in long forgotten wars.

I dropped Cat off at a drugstore and promised to call before noon. She waved good bye as if we might never see each other again. I suppose she had good reason to be a fatalist, with her husband recently disappeared -- but I’ve never been a sentimentalist and would not be deterred: I was feeling good going on great, knowing that I was finally doing something positive with my life.


The last time I saw a corpse was in Corpus Christi. Christine, was her name, made a big mistake when she opened the door to the chain-saw-salesman with a friendly smile. She should have signed on the dotted line -- poor thing!

This is what popped into my thoughts as I was driving to Mort Ives’ friendly fields beneath a low sky the color of smudge. I suppose I could have blamed my mood on the case-at-hand that wasn’t advancing, but deep down I knew something else was dragging me into the depths of something I didn’t want to face. Maybe I already knew that when push came to shove, I lacked the backbone and discipline to live by the new principles I had laid down for myself. I couldn’t imagine a day going by without putting away a dozen beer or so. And when it came to thinking about forgoing a life wired to the pursuit of pleasure, I couldn’t come up with a single argument to the contrary – well what do you know.

I guess if the truth be told one of the reasons I’m a die-hard city boy is that every time I find myself in the open country I'm shamed into a pettiness I’d rather not explain. And the feeling is so abusive I would just as soon remove myself from the face of the earth than have to face myself in all of my smallness and mediocrity that paradoxically begins to feel bigger and bigger when there are no buildings around to hide behind.

As soon as the smell of the desert or any kind of animal dung gets into my nostrils, I suddenly realize just how unhealthy and decadent are the ways of the big city that each and every one of us legitimizes by referring to it as life-style preference. And of course when you’re suffocating in it, you don’t even take notice it seems so natural – that is until you leave town, and then it explodes in your face. Out here in the big country, in the plenitude of the natural order, I can’t help but to wonder if I'm the only person within a radius of a 100 miles obeying his worst instincts; that everyone else, while they might feel like giving in to the savage within, fears the censure of their neighbours and community -- which is why my ‘yes’ to every pleasure is their emphatic ‘no.’ Maybe that's why city people prefer not to know their neighbours, and in some cases their own family members.

Everybody, without exception, fears the judgment of those to whom they are known, and that’s why big cities keep getting bigger. In a city, a man can sink as low as his constitution permits. As soon as a regular guy kisses his wife and small kids good bye in the morning, he is, for all intents and purposes, anonymous. For him, everything is permitted because nobody cares enough to even notice him. His freedom knows no limits accept where the law infringes on it. And I, as much as the next man, have savoured the anonymity only the big city can confer, and pursued my pleasures as I saw fit: and I fit into everything. Everyday of my life I have crawled on all fours to pray at the altar of self-gratification, and the end result of my depravity is to be admired and envied by everyone who has ever met me. That I am regarded as a role model in most circles (including the enthusiastic ecclesiastic contingent) is a fair indication of what is needed to grow a rotten city: morally bankrupt beings like myself for whom the pursuit of pleasure principle is the only game in town. And for those of you who are simply incapable of acting on your worst instincts, do not despair: there’s a place for you, too, in the grand scheme of things. You can bet next time round, God is going to make you and I trade places, and I’ll be the unhappy moralist cursing to my dying day the straight-jacket my conscience can’t escape from.

So if life consists of what is being lived right here and now, in the big now which is this precious second, rather than squander it on envying what the other person has, let us seize the moment and be thankful that it could have been otherwise. I didn’t ask that women of all colours and curves find me irresistible, or that I’m only at my best when I’m tanked up. Which is to say, no matter what side of the pleasure curve we’re on, life is always fair because it’s life. Or to coin a phrase from Henry Miller, if someone were to figure out a way to transform human feces into gold, the poor would be born without ass-holes.

Trying to make sense of Bart-Bell's many contradictions was like trying to draw a 4-sided triangle. Saddled with an IQ that could chill water, he learned to ride without one. Women old enough to be his mother were attracted to him, but he treated them like mothers. On the other hand, he disciplined himself to pump iron everyday, and was committed to a cause that would benefit all of America -- so he believed. And in the pursuit of his private beliefs -- to inform the public of the dangers of chemically grown rice -- his own personal safety was now in jeopardy.

Compared to the likes of Bart-Bell and Mort Ives, I was a pathetic creature, who had to look all the way back to Nam to find something in myself I liked. But Nam was easy. There was no choice. You knew who the enemy was (communism and gooks that were breeding like flies) and you did what had to be done to stay alive.

I'm not surprised to learn that Hanoi Jane (Jane Fonda) has a drinking problem. I may have lived a dissolute, reprobate, selfish existence, but for the life of me, I wouldn't want to be spending the rest of my life like Jane Fonda doing battle with her conscience. And don’t get me wrong here. Hanoi Jane does have a conscience, permanently stained with the blood of America's best whom she personally demoralized, which is a lesson on the importance of being able to think through the consequences of the positions we take. World history has been an unrelenting blood-letting because people like Fonda, with perhaps the best of intentions, have only done half their thinking, and have made decisions that have been only half right -- and therefore, half wrong. Lest we forget, half of all the wars ever waged have been lost. Most of them, properly thought out, wouldn't have been waged in the first place.
Climbing up through the Tehachapi Hills, the muddy sky broke up into lumpy gray which thinned out into a gauze-like haze. By the time I reached Ives' acreage, narrow bars of sunlight were shafting through the small holes in the sky. It was a treat to turn my gaze away from my heavy thoughts to the magnificent cosmos that was in the fiery throes of creation.

Mort Ives must have heard the wheels of my car spitting out gravel. He flew out of the house, and before I could open my door, he installed himself in the passenger seat.

"I appreciate you coming up here on such short notice, Brick. The wife's been looking at me suspicious." Ives' tanned face was showing red and he was a little out of breath.
"What's the problem?"

"Follow that road up there, by the pole," he instructed, pointing with a doubled-up fist. I followed the rutted dirt lane, admiring the silvery green of the rice fields now shimmering under a shower of splintered sunlight. "When you come to that drop over there, turn right." As the car lurched down, Mort looked back over his shoulder, making sure his house and curious wife were out of sight. "Now slow down . . . and stop here," he pointed thumb down. We got out of the car and followed a path that had been recently stamped through the grass. I noticed the blades were all bent in one direction. It looked like something heavy had been dragged through them. About a hundred yards into the field, we came upon the bloodied, disfigured, massacred body of Bart-Bell.

"Jesus Christ" I moaned.
I hadn't seen a body like this since the war, when Wardlow was exploded by a mine. I tried to avert my eyes but couldn't. I felt my brains trying to squeeze out of my skull. Sirens were screaming in my ears.
What I was looking at through my nausea and rage was more than simple murder and mutilation; it was the sickness unto death, the work of a demented psychopath. Not only were Bart-Bell's eyes gauged out, both ears were cut off, a knee-cap was hanging from loose flesh, and his entire body was slashed and punctured with deep cuts.
"I found him early this morning," said Ives in a quaking voice. "I decided to call you first -- those goddamn bastards." Ives took a deep breath and formed a fist. "He was just a kid trying to do good -- and look what those sickos did." In Ives’ anguished and outraged face was engraved the tragic history of the species; everything this decent man believed in had been violated.

"Did you tell anyone else?" He shook his head. "Did you check for I.D.?"
"I couldn't," he said, turning his eyes away.

I went back to the car and returned wearing surgeon's gloves. “Sorry about this, Mort. But it’s got to be done.” I dropped to my knees and rolled the lifeless body onto its side. In the blood-stained but intact pant back pocket was Bart-Bell's wallet complete with I.D. and about eighty dollars in cash. The assassins had sent a clear message to the organic rice growers association as well as to those who were thinking about joining. I carefully inspected every item in the wallet and found nothing of interest until I came across, on the back of his Bart’s Deltoid membership card, a 6 letter code written in light pencil. The first half was borrowed from the alphabet, the last half comprised of 3 digits. It was the exact same type of code that identified Mattie Hexen's lab book. This was the break I was looking for.
"I think I know who's behind this, Mort." His eyes were moist. He and Bart hadn’t known each other very long, but Ives had developed avuncular feelings for boy who had given his life for the common good. "We're going to nail those sons of bitches. I promise you. And I don't care who we’re up against; they are going to pay." After I returned the wallet to Bart-Bell's bloodied pocket, we retraced our steps back to the car, and drove back to the house in silence where his wife was waiting. She knew something bad had happened. "No point in hiding it now, is there," he said in a weary, defeated voice. I placed my hand on his shoulder.

"When you feel up to it, call the police and tell them exactly what happened, right from the beginning -- but don’t mention me for the time being. I need some time for you know what." Mort didn’t respond, but just sat there, staring into space, into the face of evil that was here, there and everywhere. Isn't there anything I can do, Brick.” he finally said. “I feel so helpless."

"There is one thing you can do," I consoled. "Keep growing your organic rice and nursing those chemical-free fields. There's nothing more beautiful to the eye and sweet to the nose than the smell of the good earth with life growing out of it. Your truth will win in the end, Mort. The cancer that is their greed must be exposed and extirpated. They must not be allowed to poison our earth."

For a second there, I was almost beginning to believe my own bloviations, otherwise known as BS, as Mort silently clasped my hand in an emotional show of solidarity. I thought better of telling him that any environment, no matter how abused, over time, knows better than any of us how to take care of itself. Which brings me to my favourite subject of Green Peace and their mindless acolytes. At the end of their day, which begins and ends with hollow sound-bites and catchy slogans, the only thing green they have to show for their efforts is the snot that’s stuck up their snob noses. I’ve always maintained that if you want to play Green, get your lardy asses out there in the field and follow the example of Mort Ives. Case closed.

I watched Mort and his wife embrace, and vowed to lose five pounds by the end of the week.


On the way back to L.A. whose faraway smog was the only blemish in the otherwise pristine sky, I stopped in a town called Mojave where I teased my thirst with a single beer, and then called Cat.

I decided to withhold the news of Bart’s murder and instead reported that Mort Ives had received a threatening phone call advising him to sell his land -- and wanted to discuss, in private, his next move before calling the police.
I didn't like the idea of lying to Cat so early our in our relationship, but I just couldn't tell her over the phone that she was not only a widow but that Bart had been brutally tortured and killed. There was no telling how she might react, but I suspected she would require a good deal of tea and tequila and an especially strong shoulder to cry on.
Unsuspecting of what lay in store, she innocently advised me of a doctor’s appointment set up for 2 o’clock, admonishing me not to be late.

If at this point in our coupledom, I was the warrior, she was the undisputed worrier, insisting that a professional attend my head wounds. I promised to be home for an early supper, allowing just enough time to savour the aroma of sizzling burger fat issuing from the many fast food joints along the way.

In the clinic's overflowing waiting room about 20 patients were filling out various insurance forms. Near the door was a stack of magazines that looked like they hadn't been touched in years. A tri-lingual assistant was going from patient to patient, patiently distributing erasers, explaining the purpose of each form, where to sign, and again sign. Listening to the myriad of tongues which included Spanish, Italian, Cantonese, Mandarin, Philipino, Korean, I suspected I was the only unilingual speaker in the room, a realization that left me wishing I could do it all over again. And what parent hasn’t wished the same?

At exactly 4 o'clock, just as I signed my name for what seemed like the twentieth time, Doctor Wing William Rivera invited me into his office.

A young man in his early thirties, unhurried in his movements that marked him as California born, Wing’s facial features were stereotypically oriental while his upper body was shaped like a burrito. He was wearing wire-rimmed glasses which made him look older. Sitting in a high-backed swivel chair at an enormous desk, he looked like a dwarf compared to the ceiling high poster of himself pasted on the wall behind him.

The poster, which made kitsch look like serious art, left no doubt as to Wing’s medical philosophy. Ink-jetted across the poster in oversized Gothic lettering was the epigram: the honourable physician is the humble servant of all of God’s children. I had to lower my eyes to the live version of himself, presently preoccupied with paperwork, a blank grin pulling back his wide lips as if infirmity and suffering had been completely eliminated from the human lot. And then back to the poster and its gaudy detail, which I wished was a hunger-induced hallucination. But no such luck. In living colour was the good doctor, grinning like someone with a room-temperature IQ, sporting a ping-pong racket in one hand and a taco in the other. Stitched into his button-down white shirt were miniature American flags, while his tie was stylized with the stars and stripes. I noticed there was no reference to Amer-Indian culture.

"So you're detective Jack X. Ax." He tugged at his smooth chin as if a beard were there. "What's the X. stand for?"
"You’re addressed as Detective Ax?"
"It's customary."
"So what's the problem Detective Ax?" he began, confused by the volume of information generated by the forms.
"Absolutely nothing. My girl-friend is worried that infection might set in here." I pointed to my head. Doctor Wing Rivera politely invited me to the examination table. With a special scope light, he inspected the healing scabs.
"Are you using peroxide?" I nodded, yes. "Any pus?" I nodded, no. "Everything looks fine here." He paused a moment. "But if I may be uncharacteristically quantitative, Detective Ax. Your obesity is disturbing. In fact so much so, I strongly recommend that you rebook for a thorough check-up without delay. We can begin the preliminaries right now, if you like?”

Even though I felt like a million bucks and counting, I hadn't had a real check up since Nam, so I agreed.
The first thing he did was put me on the scale: the digits read 249.5. I had already shed half a pound. He then took my pulse and blood-pressure. A look of alarm rippled across his smooth forehead, gathering into a violent wave before crashing into the rocky beach of my battered health. "I hope you have made arrangements with one of the local funeral homes?" he droned. He slipped a business card into my hand. The names Oh, Woo and Rivera were printed on the top. On the image of the logo, stencilled onto the inside panel of an opened, ornate casket was handwritten: Death with Dignity.

"Are you trying to tell me something, Doctor?"
"According to the numbers, Detective Ax, you should be dead."
"I'm sorry to disappoint you," I couldn't resist.
"Your sense of humour is moribund, Mr. Ax," he stated matter of factly.
"I would say falling on dead ears," I quipped.
"Your loved ones, Detective Ax, should be advised that you are a heart attack waiting to happen."
It suddenly occurred to me that the doctor's statistics were telling me that I wasn't feeling well, when the experience of myself was telling me otherwise. It was like a statistic telling a guy who pays his rent, owns a car, TV, gun and video that he's poor.
"What's the evidence?" I asked, doubtfully.
"Numbers that go off the chart."
"Then your chart is defective." Doctor Wing Rivera threw me that obnoxious know-it-all look that is peculiar to physicians and surgeons; the kind spawned in presumption and conceit, as if to say: you guys think you know it all until you drop dead.
But no statistic was going to tell me that I wasn't in good health. The Doctor glanced at his watch.
"Please take these, Detective Ax. He handed me a small jar and suppository. "I would like you to step into the next room which is sound proof. I'll need urine, feces and sperm samples."
"Why don't I leave you my high school diploma."

"Your health isn't a joking matter," monotoned Doctor Wing Rivera who was as humourless as a man about to be executed for a crime he hadn't committed. At the suggestion of the tests, I knew that my health was not very high on the list of the good doctor’s concerns.

“It wouldn’t surprise me,” I proposed unsoftly, “that you’re recommending these extra tests to ensure yourself against America’s unhealthy appetite for malpractice.”
"Health care in this country is a very complicated matter, Mr. Ax, but it's the best in the world. Even the Europeans come here for care."

My cynicism was once again confirmed, my trusting nature again found wanting.
"With all due respect," I started up, more annoyed than ever, "I refuse to participate in this scam. Better that the money used up to conduct these unnecessary tests be returned to the taxpayer whose health you and your unkind have systematically degraded.”

The good doctor showed absolutely no emotion, as if he had heard similar rants on hundred of occasions. At least Cat would find out soon enough that my sperm count hadn't ended up in a jar.

"This is a free country, Detective Ax," said the Doctor, who apparently hadn't resolved his Oedipal ties to the First Amendment. "You are free to do as you please, but I'll ask you to sign this waiver before you leave." By now I felt like an explosive leaning dangerously close to a flame, and didn't even bother reading the form I signed. But I did have one final question.

"Tell me, Doctor, do you have a professional opinion as to the effects, if any, of chemical farming -- the practice of using herbicides and pesticides to grow our crops?" Wing abruptly stood up from behind his desk and sat down again, as if he had been sitting on a tack pointing in the wrong direction.

"My narrow expertise doesn’t cover that very specialized field," began Wing Rivera defensively. "But statistics inform us that life expectancy continues to rise in all the industrial countries of the world; and they all, without exception, practice chemical farming."

"But,” I interjected, recalling Mort Ives’ arguments, “there's a growing body of evidence that strongly suggests that farmers exposed to herbicides and pesticides suffer more incidences of leukemia, pulmonary cancer, liver disease, and skin rashes than farmers who grow their produce organically."

"The scientific community hasn't substantiated those findings. Therefore, the consumer shouldn't be overly concerned. Take iodine, for example. All of us know that iodine is lethal in large quantities, but beneficial, in fact essential, in small amounts. Perhaps farmers are putting themselves at some small risk. But the consumer ingests only the smallest amounts -- deemed safe by the FDA. We must remember that once a crop has been sprayed, it is exposed to sun and rain during the entire growing season, all of which attenuate the effects of the chemicals. Furthermore, the human body, including defective ones such as yours, Detective Ax, isn't merely a warehouse where toxins collect; it is a highly responsive, self-preserving organism that effectively eliminates most undesirable by-products. I'm persuaded that active people, in particular, eliminate all the putatively dangerous chemicals you speak of. Your problem isn't herbicides or pesticides, but your gargantuan appetite. The best thing for you to do right now is to drop one hundred pounds.

"You mean 99.5," I winked, and barged out of his office.

I was in a buoyant mood driving back to Cat's. For a while, I had almost started to feel guilty about all the chemicals I had allowed to set up permanent residence in my body; until the good doctor put the salt and facts on the table and gave a clean bill of health to chemical farming. Which is to say, there is more than a cookie jar full of truth to the adage: moderation is its own reward -- from red meat to religion.

And speaking of the latter, Catholicism would still be an active force in contemporary life had the proponents of moderation succeeded in shaping Church doctrine. Asking a priest to live monogamously is difficult enough, much less celibately. We all read the newspaper headlines. The urge to surge is like a cork. You push it down in one place, and it pops up in another. And to pretend otherwise is to further civilize, which is to say stifle, asphyxiate, our already over-civilized population. Wasn't it Alexander Pope who said that celibacy is like trying to hold back a piss: you'll either die trying, or burst. And when it comes to bursting, who am I to condemn priests who turn to each other for disburdening when the sac becomes to heavy to bear. Relax the laws of celibacy and you'll see an immediate drop in priest related pedophilia, which must be of concern to all parents of small children. Case closed.


When a man of action, such as myself, a woman's man if I may say so, happens to pass a line-up to a porn film, his first instinct is to pity the jerks who get their kicks in life looking at others doing what they should be doing. That there are literally millions of ‘healthy’ adults who have resigned themselves to the path of least resistance, to what at best can be described as second-hand relief, is an indication of just how passive and downright lazy the men of this once great nation have become. And it's certainly not fair to the millions of single women out there who would only be too happy to be relieved of their loneliness, often life-long sentences foisted upon them by unmanly men.

I have fought in the steamy, mosquito blighted jungles of Nam; and now, as a detective, I continue to fight against the forces of evil that have been let loose by the First Amendment, and I simply cannot bring myself to respect a man who chooses to spend his one and only life on the side-lines. Sure, it's a good seat, and buying a ticket entails no risk and responsibility; but nobody is going to tell me that the goddesses of the silver screen can compete with Cat, or with any of the many unexceptional ladies who have lain beside a man who isn't afraid to carry the ball in a contact sport, to take the hits, risk fumbling, playing not to win but for the love of the game.

I would have waged my money and yours that my scorn for the unmanly men of my generation was as sure as my love of ice-cold beer on a hot-noontime in July. Until Cat waltzed into the kitchen wearing a sexy gossamer bra and thin blue panty curving high over her hip; and began preparing supper as if her state of undress couldn't possibly divert me from the sports page. In literally seconds, my thumbs down attitude towards the masses lined up for WHEN HARRY PORKED SALLY (the film didn't require a subtitle) turned into ‘where’s the nearest video rental outlet?’ In the grip of an imagination writing the perfect script, I couldn't think of a more legitimate line of pursuit than staring at that gorgeous body that seemed to concentrate the lust of the entire planet in its compact, precocious motion. From the vantage point of the kitchen table where I was seated, I was suddenly prepared to spend the rest of my life in the shifting shadows of Cat's posterior, watching it alternately pout and beseech, beguile and bedevil, while her long legs slithered and snaked like luscious fruit fermenting in its own juices. I was so beside myself with desire, I ‘almost’ regretted not having deposited some evidently excess seed into the good doctor's jar. There was simply no experience on earth as compelling and tantalizing as the curves of Cat's slim waist exploding into voluptuous hips whose contours and coquettish dimples suggested swamps and wet grass that kept the mind's eye locked in an endless labour of lust. Setting off her smooth, sun-coloured skin was the glove-like fit of the flimsy patch of panty disappearing into the writhing folds of undulating pink flesh out of which were poking delinquent strands of pubic hair, silky-black sea-weed swaying in a bubbling blue Sargasso.

"Are you listening to me, Brick? Brick?" she repeated, turning to face me. I jerked and shuddered like someone emerging from a catatonic trance. Cat was quick to figure out that the sports page wasn't receiving its due. She cocked her hip and folded her arms over her full breasts. "Forget it, Brick," she said, in a voice that no man from Adam to the present has ever taken seriously. "We're eating soon." She dismissively turned me her backside (not exactly a disincentive), and began setting in motion her marvelously sculpted buttocks that could put out more voltage than the Tennessee Valley Authority -- all the while innocently stirring up a sea-weed and celery dish.

Meanwhile, the passive, frozen thing that I was moments ago suddenly caught fire. Faster than the time it takes to execute a hand-off, I sprang out of the chair and slipped my arms around Cat's willowy waist and silky smooth tummy, gliding my hands up to her spectacular breasts which I cupped and fondled while drifting my nose and mouth along the soft slope of her neck. I then pressed myself against her hot buttocks which she began to rotate into my smoking pelvis. She let the cooking utensil drop the floor. In the mindless convulsions of passion, her nipples began to swell against her bra and waves of heat were coming off her flesh. "Brick," was the last word she spoke, now feverishly biting and sucking my lips and tongue with her hungry mouth.

I lifted her up, whisked her to the bedroom, bounced her on the bed, and began tearing off my clothes, my eyes peeled to her magnificent breasts spilling out of her bra. She quickly slithered out of her panty and lifted her hips, her eyeballs disappearing into her head, nipples stiffening against the lick and suck of my greedy tongue. And then I entered her. She gasped. We melted into each other like hot wax turning into liquid over a flame.

Time stopped. Our universe contracted into spasms and groans. In the throes of pleasure, our bodies rose and fell like a rubber dinghy on a stormy sea. We emptied ourselves, and then again; and when finally spent, we lay in each others' arms like Siamese cats joined from the neck down, listening to the easy cadence of our breathing. For an interval that was the mirror of infinity itself, we were the most contented couple on the planet. And then the phone rang.

"You get it honey," she moaned.
"It’s got to be for you," I declined, unwilling to rouse myself from the bovine bliss that follows coitus and tobacco.
Cat sleepily withdrew her arm from around my waist and picked up the receiver. “Yes, that’s me,” she said, and then said it again. Out of the corner of my eye I caught the twin tendons in her neck stiffening. She abruptly sat up and pulled the sheet around her.
"Oh my God," she gasped. “Oh my God.”

I knew it had to be the police informing her about what happened to Bart. She said nothing, listening intently, and then wrote down an address. "I'll come down first thing in the morning," she said, taking a deep breath, trying to sound composed. And then hung up.

For about half a minute she just sat there, pulling the sheet tighter around her.
"Bart is dead," she finally announced in a small voice. The shock of the news had bent her back into an unsexy slouch. "The police are pretty sure he was murdered.”
“Oh no,” I said, disgusted with my lie. I didn't know what to say, so I simply said: "I'm sorry, honey. I’m so sorry." I knew I meant it but it didn’t sound right, so I took her hand and held it tight in mine.
"Poor Bart," she said in a broken voice. “Poor Bart.”
We said nothing for a while. I felt like a cad having lied to her and vowed that I would never lie to her again.
With difficulty, I resisted the urge (the 20 year habit) of dissolving all feelings connected with negative self-esteem with a 6-pack.
"If you need me, I'll be in the living room," I volunteered, allowing Cat time to herself. I released her hand, dragged myself out of bed, slipped into a robe, kissed Cat on both her wet eyes, and disappeared into the kitchen.
Much later in the evening, I decided to eat supper -- alone.
When I returned to the bedroom, Cat was fast asleep, her face turned toward the soft beam of moonlight entering through the window. She looked like an angel.
An open vial of pills was on her night table. I read the instructions. The prescription called for twenty four diazepams. I counted, and then recounted twenty two; and on a whim, decided to forgo the nightly ritual of a couple of beer, and instead helped myself to a couple of the little ones.

During the night, my sleep was interrupted twice by the same dream.

I am in an enormous room eating a sirloin steak, cutting myself small, dainty bites of meat that I chew slowly and methodically. The room is partitioned by a thick glass. Cat, wrapped in a white cape, comes to the partition to tell me something, but I can't hear her or read her lips. However, she continues as if I understand her. This seems to go on forever -- and then I wake up.


The next morning at breakfast was a subdued affair, to say the least. Twig tea and organically grown eucalyptus leaves dipped in honey isn't my idea of an athlete's breakfast; but then again I'm no Suma wrestler. Cat complained of a sore throat which the eucalyptus was intended to balm while I was trying to conjure up last night's sirloin steak adventure.
Understandably, Cat-the-widow was south of mellow as she went about her morning routine, making it clear she wasn't in the mood for small talk. In fact, she turned on the radio for the first time since we met. An on-again, off-again smoker (she claimed she could go days without one), she lit up after breakfast, and inhaled all the way to Beijing.

"I want you to know, Brick, that I don't feel guilty about what happened," she said getting up to shut off the radio. "You and I are as right for each other as Bart and I were wrong. But I still feel that I let him down in respect to what he was doing." She started nibbling on a fat leaf. "I know I wasn't able to love him they way he wanted to be loved, but I could have been his friend. He needed a friend. Badly. And no one was there to help him when he needed it – and he paid with his life." I lit up another cigarette with my still burning one, enjoying the effect of the eucalyptus cooled smoke sucking into my throat and lungs.

Listening to Cat take herself to task, I didn't agree with how she was trying to fit herself into a one-size-fits all frame she was using to account for Bart-Bell's death. She was no more responsible for his murder than I was; but guilt has a way of finding us when we’re most vulnerable, and Cat’s conscience was all over her sleeve this morning.
"Before you blame yourself, Cat" I began, gulping down the tea like it was medicine, "let's go over the facts. Neither you nor I know what advice Bart was getting or not getting. According to Mort Ives, Bart was a man on a mission; he was obsessed with ridding our rice of what he believed to be harmful chemicals. And he was already so deeply involved it's unlikely he would have listened to anybody counselling or restraint. Agreed?"

"I'm not so sure about that. Don’t forget that before anything else Bart was a narcissist: he loved and was obsessed with the body that he was, and he was always very careful about throwing himself in harm’s way. What probably happened was that he didn’t have a clue about the hatreds he was stirring up, and when he suddenly found himself in trouble, it was too late. Had I been able to talk to him, or better yet, show him what had happened to you the other night, he might have thought twice about everything. Maybe he would have even let you help him."
"Maybe. Maybe not. But remember: he walked out on you. In fact, he walked out on everybody. It's hard to help someone who walks away from help."

"I sure didn’t help him when I had the chance.”
“That’s because he didn’t confide in you. He kept you out of the loop. He wanted you to believe he was distributing information pamphlets and that was it. Big deal.”
“Come on, Brick. I told you he was acting strange before he disappeared. I should have realized something was wrong.”
“You’re right. There was something wrong. The marriage was on the rocks, which is a separate issue from his work -- and disappearance.”
“I think it’s all connected. Had the weather been good inside, he wouldn’t have had to look outside.”
“Listen Cat. You show me a man who isn’t interested in you as a woman, and I’ll show you someone who has big big problems. Bart-Bell, may his gentle soul rest in peace, was one screwed up guy, and there’s no telling what might have happened to him.”
Cat thought about it for a minute before conceding the point.

“Maybe you’re right. For sure he was screwed up and confused about his identity, but that doesn’t change the fact that I was in a position to know what was going on in his life. That fact of the matter was that I didn’t give a shit about what he had decided to do with his life. I was selfish. I was only thinking about myself. I wanted him to love me but he didn’t -- and it hurt. And when I begged him to make love to me and he refused, it hurt even more. I was glad when he left. He made me feel like a loser.” Cat butted out her cigarette, into the flesh of bad memories that were enjoying a robust after-life. “But the guy had a heart of gold. The only thing he wanted to do with his life was do good, which is a lot more than I’ve ever done. If there was somebody on this earth who didn't deserve to die, it was Bart. He never harmed a fly."

As Bart’s portrait, painterly rendered by Cat, began to emerge out of the shadows of hearsay and innuendo, I felt genuinely short-changed that I never got the opportunity to meet him. I’m sure I would have liked him. I know Mort Ives sure as hell did.

For the next 30 minutes or so, Cat talked about her life with Bart, doing her best to put a positive spin on everything, but when all was said and done, she was simply unable to understand how somebody could be murdered for merely objecting to the way rice was grown and processed. “What’s this sick world coming to, honey,” she said in an incredulous voice, turning the watery pools of her eyes into mine, looking for both sympathy and a reasonable explanation for a totally insane act. I just shook my head and kept her beautiful sad eyes locked onto mine until hers welled with tears.

“I wish I could tell you otherwise, Cat, but I can’t. When all is said and done, life usually turns out to be a sordid affair, and the only thing you can do about it is recognize it for what it is and duck if you have the time; and of course learn to expect absolutely nothing of your fellow creatures, especially when you’re down and out.”
"He must have found out something really important.”

"Big enough to get him killed," I said a little too boisterously. At the mention of the ‘kill’ word, Cat shuddered but said nothing. "He just might have gotten hold of some very sensitive information on a specific killer herbicide or pesticide they use to grow white rice.”
Bart doesn’t have the savvy to get that kind of information,” Cat objected, unaware that she was still using the present tense.
"Maybe. Maybe not. You never know. But I’m going to find out soon enough. That, I promise you.”
There ensued another long silence, punctuated by the aerobics of chain smoking.
"I have to go and identify his body," she announced, pushing back her chair.
Giving myself time for what I didn't know what I was going to say next, I went to the fridge and poured myself a shot of bottled spring-water, and felt like I had betrayed my entire history. Unlike beer, you have to have a European sensibility to turn bottled water into an object of delectation – and I, for one, am no tight-assed European.

Cat nervously lit up another cigarette.
"Be prepared for the worst," I almost whispered, not wanting to alarm her.
"I know. They told me he was cut up real bad. Real real bad."
"Why don't you get lost in a movie afterwards, or hit the beach?"
"Yeah. Maybe I'll do that. A long walk would be nice.” She stood up and butted out the cigarette she had just lit up. “I’m going to change now.” She listlessly trundled herself off to the bedroom, shoulders a bit slouched, eyes vacant.
I didn’t know what to do with myself so I just sat at the kitchen table guzzling bottled water and smoking one cigarette after another.

When Cat emerged about 20 minutes later, I hardly recognize the person whose shape was lost in baggy blue slacks, a white flowing blouse and a smart, navy-blue, shoulder-padded blazer. The wire-rimmed driving glasses perched on her nose made her look like a system's analyst. Cramming odds and ends into her blue suede purse, I thought she wasn't even going to say good bye, when at the last moment she reminded herself to give me a kiss: a quick, dry peck on the left cheek. “I shouldn’t be too long,” she said despondently, closing and then locking the door behind her.

As soon as the door closed, I called the Pontude lab and asked to be connected to Mattie Hexen. “The main switchboard isn’t allowed to transfer calls to employees unless you are on a special list approved by internal security,” said the automated answering service. That meant I would have to wait at the employee's exit, anticipating that Mattie would want to step outside for some fresh air during the noon hour. Which left me with a couple of hours to kill.

So I phoned Cheyenne and mentioned that she had promised to arrange a meeting with Jane Hair. Her mood was quite buoyant, so I dared to suggest an off the premises meeting, if possible. “And don’t forget to mention I’m a consulting chef for a muscle magazine.” I reminded her. When I called back 15 minutes later, Cheyenne, almost maniacally friendly, said that I'd find Hair at the Winston School jogging track at around 10.30. She then proposed that after the interview I drop in for a chat and back massage. Apparently she was a ‘jack’ of all trades, if you’ll pardon the pun.
What should have been a 15 minute drive, took more than half an hour. Twice traffic came to a halt to allow siren-blaring, speeding police cars and 2 ambulances to pass. I guess this wouldn’t be L.A. if someone wasn't paying the ultimate price twice day every day of the year.

When I finally arrived at Winston High, a red brick affair that looked more like a detention center, I was lucky enough to find a parking spot on the shaded side of the street running along the school grounds.
And then I looked up and there it was, silhouetted against the bright fire-ball of a rising sun, a tall, sleek black figure of indeterminate sex dangling from an 8 feet high horizontal bar. In perfectly fluid motion, she raised her legs until they were at right angles to her body, and then she began chinning herself. It had to be Jane Hair warming up for her jog.

I entered the school yard through an unchained wire gate, quietly sat down on a nearby bench and watched her perform what seemed like an endless number of punishing chin-ups, methodically raising herself until her chin touched the bar, grimacing, contorting and grunting with each yank that was slower and more difficult than the previous, until I was actually overcome with fatigue merely observing her. I had never seen anything quite like it: live or in a magazine. From where I was seated, like a devotee in the presence of a divinity, she looked like a tongue of meat grooved into ripples, and sported the kind of body that could scare trace particles of fat into muscle: and the hairless head slicked with oil made a compelling figure -- to say the least. Even her forehead looked exercised. After what must have easily been her fortieth chin-up, she spread her already extended legs until she got into the splits position, and aping the gymnasts who play the ring competitions, held herself there for about fifteen seconds before easing herself to the ground. Like someone accustomed to casting her eyes upon all the lesser creatures than herself, she just stood there for a while, beholding to no one but her own vanity, her entire body glistening in sweat and accomplishment. I had to admit I was mesmerized.

Jane Hair was wearing bicycle shorts and a tight training top that defined every rib and sinew. Looking meaner than the gargoyles guarding Notre Dame, as soon as she noticed me she started toward me in a belligerent gait, recalling the sexy toughness of Mae West and John Wayne, but with an androgynous aspect that transcended the gender gap. A horse-shoe shape of light gaped provocatively just below her swinging pelvis: an ‘android’ pelvis we boyz used to say when we were boys gaping at growing up girls. Striding right up to me, she stamped a mean foot down on the bench, squared her bony shoulders, fulcrummed a brawny arm against her nice knee, and literally froze me stiff with her piercing grape-green eyes. This chick doesn't touch perfume, was my first thought.

"I presume you're, Mr. Jack Ax? Cheyenne told me about you." She stared at me as if I were some grunting thing let loose in a stockade, and then she answered her own question. "I reckon you look like a chef, if that's how chefs are supposed to look. Of course chef wasn't the first word that came to mind."

"You mean fat pig," I said, helpfully. She cracked a smile like someone who didn’t like to smile in the presence of men.
"I like a man who doesn't look like one," she declared, her paper-thin peroxide-blonde brows arching with sous-entendu. Like her fatless body, Jane Hair's voice was hard and pure. As a sound wave, it registered like molten lead on the ear’s soft drumskin. I was sure she had a natural singing voice, in all likelihood poorly served by a retarded emotional range that comes with the cult of the body.
"And you must be the famous Jane Hair?"
"Cheyenne thinks you should be."
"Well isn't she sweet. Except she forgot to tell you that the judges make sure that bodies like mine don't win competitions. In fact, we don't even enter them. But I'm charmed that you have taken it upon yourself to interviewing me, Mr. Ax." I suddenly realized that Jane Hair’s tough look was nothing but a façade, one of the many masks young people learn to wear to better deal with a world that doesn’t care if you’re there or not.

However there was no masking the fact that she was unqualified to compete. However arresting was her bullet-like body, she wasn't muscular in the competitional sense. There were no memorable bulges to fix on, and when she posed, her body merely hardened into waves, like metal that has been dropped into ice water. And yet Jane Hair was as steely as any woman who has ever entered a gym. And when she showed you her ass, which almost reminded you of one, you weren't quite sure if it was flesh or the flats of something forged in a foundry quarterbacking her locomotion.

"So what are the dietary secrets of your exquisite body, Jane?" I asked, in open admiration, flipping over a page in my blank note pad. Jane withdrew her foot from the bench, took a deferential two steps back, crammed her hands into the pocket slits of her shorts, and became grave and business like.

"Hard work, Mr. Ax. And shark and barracuda."

At the mention of those denizens of the deep, the Jane Hair of my imagination sprung into action, bronzed and intrepid, the master of her own destiny in the tempest waters of an uncharted sea, purposefully rising to the mythic occasion of a life and death struggle with a ferocious barracuda. Of course, the barracuda didn’t have chance. And when her story would be finally told – for the ages -- (by a lesser God than Herman Melville) the academic establishment would applaud Jane for advancing the cause of equal opportunity for women; while Jane, herself, would only take pride in recalling that the gains were made in “the playing fields of the Lord”, and not in the glossy pages of Cosmopolitan or Sports Illustrated.

"How about red meat?" I asked.
"I gave that up about five years ago. In a typical day, I'll eat about two pounds of fish with lots of lentils to keep the pipes flushing."

"And how do you relate to chocolate rum cake topped with whipped cream?" I proposed sarcastically, hopeful of finding at least one flaw in a life style that was more calibrated than mathematics, more ordered than boot camp, and would allow me the peace of mind required for my own suspect eating practices. Jane Hair drifted a cynical eye over the enormous gut that was spilling into my lap.

"Whose appetite are we talking about here?" she jibed.
"For the record," I retaliated in a friendly growl, "be advised that whipped cream is off limits.”
"And that's because it doesn't wash with beer, right? I know your kind Jack Ax, and if you don’t mind me saying so, you all disgust me looking the way you look and allowing it to happen.”

“Speak your mind, Jane. That’s what good interviews are all about,” I offered, willing to take a hit for the team. I thought I detected a look of suppressed amusement mixing in with her disdain, and then our eyes met and locked and we were both pleasantly surprised to discover that the chemistry was right, that it was rather easy and even fun to find a comfort zone in the strange culture each of us represented to the other. I was now prepared to admit that I had underestimated both Jane Hair's decency and her intelligence. And while she might talk dumber than a high school grad, there was nothing that got by her. In fact, her mind was quicker than a fly dodging a swat when the occasion called for it.

"Are you beholding to vitamin pills, pharmaceuticals or protein augmentation?" I asked disinterestedly.

"If you're talking about anabolic steroids, you might want to take a look at this. "Jane Hair stepped back from the bench, and with my undivided attention in thrall to her incredible physique, she began methodically rolling up her training top to just below her perky breasts, filled her lungs to capacity, and then proceeded to flex her biceps, triceps, pecs, ripple her stomach, and finally tighten her quads and calves down to her ankles. Holding the pose for a good five seconds, she looked like a mythological creature absorbed in its perfection, or an anatomy chart highlighting the body's network of arteries and veins. She then released her breath, and pulled the top back down over her table-flat tummy.

"Believe me, Mr. Ax," she gasped. "If I was on steroids, I would be thirty pounds better looking than I am now. Only competition women do steroids, while the rest of us are supposed to spend our time and money looking nice and sexy for the men, which means keeping our bulk nice and lady-like. But it’s a different ball game for the guys out there – and a hell of a lot uglier. Even those poor suckers who don’t compete are pressured into doing steroids because we women can't resist a man whose body is ‘hung’ with hard muscle. Do you get the picture? No one's interested in fitness for its own sake anymore."

I nodded, fascinated by the sexual politics that has apparently informed every grunt, grimace and muscle ever grown.
"Cheyenne says you're a role model for many of the females in training, and that you've taken under your wing a prestigious woman executive who goes by the name of Mattie Hexen."

"I guess you could say I'm an inspiration of sorts," she confessed shyly. "And I suppose I'm pleased when they ask me for advice -- but forget about Mattie Hexen. The only thing her body's good for is keeping the corn fields safe from the skies. And I'm not saying that because I'm a sore loser. I've seen her in the shower, Mr. Ax, and believe me, I've seen better looking bodies in concentration camp films."

It was refreshing to meet a young woman who wasn't into those redundantly formulaic, guy-meets-girl movies.
"But Cheyenne tells me that men go gaga for her."

"I think she meant man, in the singular. For about the last couple of months she's been having this stupid love affair with one of the trainers here, a guy named Torso, who is probably the dumbest person anybody’s ever met – but I got to admit that you won't find a more gorgeous hunk of a body. I've seen women on the floor start touching themselves just watching him workout. Nice looking, respectable women, too."

"So how do you explain the attraction?"

"I can't. Except that opposites attract. She's real smart; he's dumb. And now with your permission, Mr. Ax."
Jane fell silent and began a lively sequence of waist twisting and stretching. I couldn't help noticing the stretch fabric of her shorts deep-creased into her unusually round pelvis, and despite the masculine vibes which were as intriguing as they were natural, she was very much a woman. "Mattie Hexen, Mr. Ax, is probably the most intelligent woman any of us -- man or woman -- has ever met; and in her own way she is a very fascinating lady. And I'll be the first to admit that, despite her physical shortcomings and conservative ways, I couldn't help looking at her in a different way, and even found myself wanting to wash her back. But she wasn’t interested and soon after connected with Torso, convincing him to walk out on his wife who could have won a Miss America contest had she had the balls. Torso was a real sucker, alright. He didn’t even realize Mattie was married.”

"This Mattie Hexen sounds like some women. Did all of this happen recently?"

"Maybe three or four weeks ago; but they were carrying on quite a bit before that."

The interview, which was yielding unexpected dividends, was suddenly interrupted by a pair of lethal-looking, fifteen year olds. Both were Hispanic, temples shaved clean, hair chopped short, matching blonde streaks running from the forehead to the pony tail. "Is this pig bothering you, Jane?" one of them inquired, chivalrously.

"It's OK, Pedro and Camilio. He's cool, he’s a friend. Pero muchas gracias and hasta luego, amigos." Announcing to the world that they all belonged to the same family, the three of them then began what appeared to be a meticulously choreographed high-five, give-me-five, bump-my-butt, see you later routine. When the rites of departure were concluded and the young warriors out of hearing range, Jane explained: "They're part of the school patrol called The Senators. They look out for me, which is a very nice feeling. Of course, I can handle myself in most situations, but there ain't much you can do against a blade or bullet!"

"Would you mind arranging an interview between myself and this guy Torso. I'd like to know what kind of food goes into a body that makes women ache like that."

"I would gladly oblige you, Mr. Ax, but he hasn't been around for a while -- and neither has she for that matter. I heard they split to Mexico, but Cheyenne told me someone told her that someone caught a glimpse of them going into the library a few days ago."

"A few days ago?" I expectorated, realizing only too late I had betrayed too much interest in a subject unrelated to the interview.

Jane, who was a lot smarter than the dumbbells she worked out with, stopped her stretching routine and looked at me in a funny way.

"Why are you asking all those questions about those two? And why am I getting the feeling that you might not be person who you claim to be?” I could tell by the smug and slightly amused expression on her face that she was sure she had caught me in a lie. What she didn’t know is that when you’re caught red-handed, you simply lie again and then again if need be. So answering Jane’s accusation, I riposted in an easy, unassuming manner, as if telling the truth or a lie were one and the same.

"We journalists are a curious breed of jackals, Miss Hair, and sometimes our curiosity leads us to places where no man has gone before." I must have been convincing. Jane suddenly became self-conscious, and tried to down-play her accusation with a half-hearted laugh. I decided to say nothing and waited for her to fall back into her stretching – which she did.

Even though I had already got more information than I had bargained for, I continued to question Miss Hair, getting her to talk about her life’s work, and in particular, the evolution of her frugal, albeit protein rich diet.
If in the past she had availed herself of maybe two hundred different kinds of food products, she now partook of about only twenty, having eliminated all dairy and meat products, fresh fruit and uncooked vegetables, and all liquids but water. By comparison, Cat was a glutinous omnivore who wouldn't have a hope in hell of achieving Jane Hair's undeniable body perfection -- thank God. That Jane left no room for the foods she loved, like ice-cream, Swiss Cheese and brazil nuts (which were too fatty), may be judged as a triumph of the will, but by my account, was an insult to life. I could only hope that one day Jane Hair would come to understand that gluttony is its own reward, and that life is meaningfully lived in proportion to one’s capacity to pig-out from time to time.

At around 11.15, I reluctantly terminated our interview and thanked her for her time. She unexpectedly took my hand and shook it warmly, and insisted that I stick around long enough to watch her fly around the 1/4-mile track in 1.35 – which I did.

During the drive to the Pontude lab, I couldn't help thinking that, be as it may that the public opinion confectioners had already stamped the big "B" for "butch" on Jane's forehead, the person that I had come to know was much bigger and better than the straight-jacket word of mouth had strapped her into.

It's worth giving pause to the fact that the word ‘butch’ was invented before Jane Hair was even born. Which begs the question: why should a word have the power to create its own captive community? Words weren’t conceived to be prisons. Aren't they supposed to be the bridges we make and take to get from point A to point B, from lies to truth, to the truth of the things that matter? Unlike the so-called men who would rather label Jane Hair than make love to her, I discovered that Jane just being herself was totally unpretentious and without hang-ups. And the fact that she was rather likeable kind of snuck up on you in a nice kind of way. And as for all that cute, hyphenated language we use to label people like Jane who don't fit into the categories we have devised for them, it is instantly recognizable by the stink it leaves in the air.

Gender-confused Jane Hair isn't confused at all. Beneath her tough exterior you’ll find a perfectly decent, harmless young lady (whom I would be proud to have as a kid sister), simply doing her best to survive in a culture turned rancid in its pursuit of pleasure, a culture that has pawned its moral compass for a no-exit walk on desolation row.
And when the festering and putrefaction finally reach epidemic proportions and claim the whole organism (my one and only L.A.), you can bet there will be dog fights over who gets to interview Jane Hair -- survivor -- species superioritus!


Mattie Hexen was not among the first wave of day-light-starved employees exploding out of the Pontude lab's side door like escaped convicts hungry for the flesh of the sun. I had already mentally prepared myself to wait for the next shift, when, five minutes after the initial rush had dispersed into its craven appetite, Mattie Hexen, like an apparition, appeared at the exit, hiding behind dark sunglasses and a white shawl. She looked like a Muslim burdened by a year’s worth of sins. Her whiteness, a pathos ensured by her ghostly complexion, white lab dress and even whiter stockings, singled her out as woefully unfit for the sun-tan capital of the world where your worth was a function of how user-friendly your skin was to the rays of the sun.

If by her disguise, Mattie Hexen was counting on not being recognized, she had in fact accomplished the opposite, so noticeable was she -- a confused, pale thing conspicuously standing out against a landscape shot through with vibrant colour. Inviting yet more attention to herself, she looked around suspiciously, as if being followed, and instead of taking the gravel path to the main pedestrian fare, she turned in the opposite direction, and like a bewildered escapee from a mental institution, cut back across the lawn alongside the building to a smaller residential street running behind the lab.

I immediately started up the motor, left some rubber on the road to remind voters that they once voted for demagogue Ross Perot, turned right through the red light, again right through a stop sign, and came to a screeching halt just ahead of her. If my somewhat unquiet arrival didn't recall Kung Fu master treading noiselessly over rice paper, my sense of mission made it easy to ignore the now excited group of Japanese tourists snapping photos of the event.

"Mattie," I called, sticking my formidable head out the passenger window. She stopped, and froze like someone with a gun pressed into her temple. She didn't recognize me. "It's me. Jack Ax. We met the other day at the restaurant." A look of relief came over her, but the lady in white had other plans.

"I don't mean to be rude or unsociable, Mr. Ax, but I'm very busy today. It was nice of you to say hello." She started to walk away.
"You need my help, Mrs. Hexen," I shouted after her. She slowed her walk, stopped and stood still for a moment, and then turned to the car. Savoring the small victory, I stayed put and waited for her to retrace her steps.
Lowering her smallish head into the open window, and palpably importuned, she snapped: "What do you mean by that?"
"Get in," I ordered peremptorily. “Your life might be in danger.”
"You have a twisted sense of humour, Mr. Ax.” I ignored her and opened her door. She looked around, again as if she were being followed or observed, and slid herself in.
"Sorry to alarm you like this, but you never know in life.”
“I hope this isn’t your idea of a joke, Mr. Ax. I’m a busy woman with lots on my mind and I don’t have time to play games.”
“I don’t play games either, Mrs. Hexen,” freezing her momentarily with a penetrating stare that caused her some apparent discomfort before she looked away. She then braced herself for what she knew not what. So I decided to play it silent for while.
"Where are we going?" she finally asked, trying to sound indignant.
To an veteran detective's ear trained to pick up on the smallest nuance, it was obvious that she was nervous and anxious.
"We'll drive to The Plaza parking where we can talk. It's not far." I fell silent again and concentrated on driving, deliberately weaving in and out of traffic as if trying to lose a tail. Mattie, feigning indifference to the white knuckle ride, kept her eyes glued straight ahead, her hands tightly clasped.
The parking lot was frying under the hot sun so I sidled up to the fortress-like mall whose crenulated walls provided welcome shade. I shut off the motor.
"Who are you, Mr. Ax?"
"I'm a private detective, Mrs. Hexen." She released a chestful of air.
"So our meeting the other day wasn't an accident?"
"Hardly." She untied her shawl, letting loose a pasty shock of ear-lobe long hair.
"Why do you want to help me?"
"Because I think you need my help."
"Your presumption is boring," she declared curtly, implying there was nothing further to discuss. I offered myself a cigarette and a light.
"I want to know what special project you're working on."
"I told yesterday that it's top secret."
"It's no longer top secret if other people know about it."
"If you are suggesting that I have betrayed my employer, Mr. Ax, I think you owe me an apology." Mattie Hexen certainly knew how to play a losing hand into a winner, but I would not be diverted from my purposeful mix of inquiry and intimidation.
"I don't have to remind you that governments and corporations will do what is necessary to protect their interests."
"Pontude surely hasn't hired you to investigate me. It's not their style."
"You're right, Mrs. Hexen. They don't bother with formalities. You can only betray them once." Mattie tried to laugh off my imputation, but she was as convincing as a self-hating ethnic laughing at a joke made at his expense.
"I think you've been watching too much TV, Mr. Ax."
"I observed you leaving the lab. You looked uneasy about something unrelated to the dinner hour. Who's following you?"
"Why should anyone want to follow me. I'm one of the most morally capable people I've ever met."
"Being good can get you into a lot of trouble with people who are bad."
"I appreciate your interest in my welfare, Detective Ax, but I think we can terminate this conversation. My husband works nearby and I wouldn't want him to see me in what looks like a compromising situation with a stranger." Her hand was on the door when I mentioned:

"Speaking of your handsome husband of nineteen years, does he know that you are an active member of The Deltoid?" Mattie released the door handle and neatly refolded her hands on her lap. She wasn't a quitter.
If I had penetrated her first line of defence, it was only to discover she had moved to another hill-top where she was already barricading herself inside another fortress of lies.

It goes with the turf that a detective is only as good as the information he is able to extract from uncooperative subjects. During my long, and by and large, successful career, it has been women like Mattie Hexen who have proved to be most unyielding to my unconventional methods of interrogation. Mattie Hexen was a scrapper; and worse, she was principled. But I knew that she was almost sick with fear and anxiety over her lover who was missing, and sooner or later during out friendly chat, being in madly in love would prove to be her undoing. Even normally self-absorbed people, when in the first throes of falling in love, cannot help but to consider their beloved as much as themselves. If my intuition was correct, Mattie Hexen, in particular, was incapable of violating that first law of love.

At the mention of her husband, her voice took on a more conspiratorial turn. "So you've been doing your homework, Mr. Ax. Did my husband engage you?"
"Why would your husband object to your working out at a health club?"
"Maybe ‘you’ can tell me that, unless he thought I was using the club as an pretext to stay out at night."
"Is he the jealous type?"
"How should I know. Sigmund Freud once wrote that even people who are as intimate over a lifetime can never truly reach each other.”
"He should have been a psychiatrist,” I wryly observed. Mattie peered at me as if I were someone who collects comic books because he enjoys reading them.
"So are you finally going to tell me for whom you are working?" Her easy delivery was edged with fear.
"Perhaps your husband found it strange that you would join a club ten miles away when there are a half-dozen clones within a one mile radius of your home."
"So he did hire you?"
"Even unprincipled detectives, ‘unlike’ myself respect their client's right to confidentiality, Mrs. Hexen."
"Of course, of course" she agreed, in vowels sounding like they had been hived in honey. "So let's review your hard and shut case. We have established that my husband is suspicious of my evening activities; that I'm working on a top secret project, similar to projects I've been working on for the past ten years; which leads you to conclude that I need your help. Not very convincing, Mr. Ax. And I'm not surprised that you're driving a fifteen year old car," she concluded smugly.

I decided to let Hexen's remark go by unchallenged, allowing her to feel that she had gained some small advantage. At the same time, I didn't feel like defending my car on the grounds that you have to be a practicing anorexic to fit comfortably into the newer and much smaller cars.

"Perhaps your husband is neither jealous nor suspicious, Mrs. Hexen, but very worried about you."
"If he is indeed worried about me, you can tell him that he is wasting your time and his money."
I had to admire Mattie Hexen. She was as hard to pin down as a schizophrenic with a multiple personality disorder. Of course, she would have no way of knowing that the deck was stacked in my favour. But I was still hopeful that she would volunteer what she knew before I would have to take away her reason for living.
"In the restaurant, you admitted that you had unwisely removed a lab report from the premises."
"I told you I had an important research dead-line to meet."

"Am I expected to believe that you would risk your life's work and reputation simply to meet a dead-line?"
"Dedication and loyalty are obviously concepts which fall outside your moral consideration, Mr. Ax. Maybe one day you'll come to discover that the difference between right and wrong is infinitely more complicated than offering your services to the highest bidder."
Tempting as it was, I couldn't rule out the possibility that Mattie Hexen suspected that professional detectives were sleazier than car salesmen and lawyers
"I'm confident that day will come soon, especially if being in the presence of a role model such as yourself can bring about an edification of my character."
"I feel sorry for people like you, Detective Ax, for whom nothing is sacred. Absolutely nothing."
"As much as I deserve your pity, Mrs. Hexen, as your friend, I think I deserve to be told why you didn't finish up your project on the premises?"
"Try and pry as you will, you're not going to cajole me into discussing my work."
"In that case, you might find it easier to tell me why you joined the out-of-the-way Deltoid club?"
"A friend recommended it."
"Isn't it far?"
"Paris is also far, but no reason not to go."

Mattie Hexen had a quick answer for everything, but when it came to substance, her lips were sealed tighter than the tape wrapped around a mummy. It was becoming increasingly apparent that I would have no choice but to drop the bomb and explode her charade. Shifting into the sympathetic gear, I began:

"Listen, Mrs. Hexen. I was hoping that you would be frank with me, and I wouldn't have to divulge the information you're now obliging me to employ as a weapon of extortion, but unfortunately you leave me little choice. I rather suspect that it hasn't been easy for you lately, nor has it been easy for the people who have been concerned about Bart-Bell who has been missing for three weeks. You might have guessed that I was hired to find him." Mattie took a deep breath and stiffened her arms against her sides.

"And did you?" she asked, colour draining from her face.

"I wish I hadn't." I paused, and suddenly realized that the person beside me was far too fragile to bear the weight of the terrible news I was about to divulge. She turned her now petrified, pleading eyes into mine, but I couldn't help myself. Without missing a beat, and in a voice that must have sounded cold-blooded for its own sake, I announced: "He was found him murdered yesterday in the rice fields of Mort Ives."

For an incalculable interval, Mattie just sat there, stunned, looking unseeing into the dashboard, her features turning rigid, looking like someone waiting for the effects of a deadly poison to take hold.

Two tears appeared in the wells of her eyes, and gaining critical mass, tore down her pasty, freckled cheeks. And then her entire body collapsed into itself, and her chest started to heave and her breathing began to sputter and jerk. Seconds later, this poor, tragic, delicate creature broke down and began to cry so mournfully I wanted to join her. Listening to the anguish and grief pour out of her, I felt totally helpless as she unexpectedly flung her arms around my neck like a little girl and pressed her wet face into my chest. I held her close and felt the paroxysms of her pain and vibrate through me to the quick.

"Let it out, Mattie," I consoled. "Let it all out."
"I loved him," she bawled through her agony and loss. "And he loved me."
For the next five minutes she cried hard and hysterically, she clutched her face and sobbed, boring her eyes and nose deep into my butter-soft chest, convulsively trying to shut out the light of a world that had suddenly turned dark and ugly, a world stripped of all its meaning. I didn't know it was possible to be so alone, to be so connected to someone, while her hot tears spread and soaked into my shirt, and her even hotter breath burned into the depths of my being to where our hearts lay beating like hurting sea creatures beached on a sand bar.

With the clarity of a lightening bolt seen against a pitch black sky, I suddenly understood why I had been afraid to fall in love all these years, and was overcome with shame and regret over the counterfeit existence I had been living for the past two decades, for the wasted opportunities. The man whom I saw shrivelled in the mirror was afraid of life and commitment. Long ago, he had chosen nothingness over pain, and got exactly what he wanted, a whole lot of nothing to show for it; and there was always the case to be made that a case and a half of beer each and every day had dulled the nerve that might have moved him to face-up to himself.

After a time, Mattie withdrew her dishevelled face from my damp shirt; and using her shawl to wipe away her tears, tried to compose herself. She was a different person now, ready to bare her soul – and her story. And once told, like the toothpaste one can't push back into a tube, America's sense of its own health would never again be quite the same.
"As a chemist, Mr. Ax," she sniffed and then blew her nose, and in a voice that was still wobbly and shaken, sometimes breaking in mid-phrase, "it’s only natural that I take an interest in the many chemicals that make our foods safer and more nutritious. About two and a half months ago, I attended a fascinating lecture given by the famous, Alsatian-born, J'aime Fleisch (pronounced Jamie), founder of The America For Vegetables Society. In what turned out to be a remarkable speech and turning point in my life, Miss Fleisch not only spoke out against the scientifically verifiable high toxicity of meat -- especially beef -- but also against the widespread use of hazardous herbicides, insecticides and fertilizers that help grow our fruits and vegetables and grains -- which puts even conscientious vegetarians at considerable risk. Based on my own research, it was already clear to me that not all chemicals used to either increase production or enhance the appearance of our agricultural products were safe, but until that lecture, it hadn't occurred to me just how much money companies like Pontude stood to lose if certain chemicals would be banned. I suppose working in the lab year after year, I became disconnected from the ethical consequences of my industry.

"At that meeting, I found myself sitting beside a very polite young man, who like myself, was deeply concerned about the negative effects of chemical farming. He told me that he was trying to encourage organic rice growers to contribute to a fund which would be used to enlist a small team of independent chemists to test the same chemicals tested by the big corporations, the results of which he suspected had been deliberately withheld from the public for many years. As an executive senior chemist, I knew I had access to information that he would never be able to find on his own, but at the same time, I couldn't betray my employer of fifteen years.

"All of that changed when Bart and I began to have an affair; and I got to know how committed he was into making our world a safer place to live. If you have ever seen Bart-Bell, Mr. Ax, you'll know that while he isn't exactly handsome, he is the embodiment of physical perfection, on top of which he has a heart of gold and but also the heart of a little boy. For me, that was an irresistible combination. The very next day, we began a passionate, all-consuming love affair -- which lasted until he disappeared three weeks ago." Mattie opened her purse, extracted a kleenex, and again blew her nose.

"Yes," she continued. "I joined the club so we could be together more often. Yes. I betrayed my husband. And yes. Before that, I would have considered myself the least likely person to have an extra marital affair, especially with a man almost half my age. But before we could even consider the hurt we would be causing our respective families, we were swept away by something so wonderfully intoxicating we were helpless to resist it, and fell madly in love only moments after we met.”
Mattie now spoke in fits and starts, like someone not quite sure how much to reveal, but reveals it all anyway.
"We just simply couldn't have enough of each other. We made love every time we met. The physical attraction was so strong we would have sex in places that could have gotten us arrested: in the locker room late at night, in the car in broad daylight, in the cinema, in washrooms, in elevators, in stairwells, in the library. We become physically obsessed with each other. And the possibility that we might get caught made it even more exciting.
"Before I met Bart, I had never thought of myself as someone who could turn on a man, especially a physical specimen like him. He made me feel like a modern Aphrodite, like a goddess of arousal who could bring any man's blood to a boil. And when I realized that I had this tremendous power over him, I was rewarded with indescribable pleasure whenever I wanted it. For me, he was my private Adonis. I would just have to think of his perfectly sculpted, rippling tight body pressed against me, wanting me desperately, and I would get excited in ways I had never known before.
"But there were complications, of course. I soon found myself unable to respond to my husband; and Bart could no longer relate to his wife; and it was becoming increasingly more difficult to face my teenage daughters for whom I was supposed to be a role model. So we decided that when his project with the rice growers could advance without him, we would go away somewhere together. But I couldn't wait months, perhaps even years, for all this to happen. So I finally decided to provide the data he needed to prove that companies like Pontude were marketing herbicides and pesticides known to be deleterious to health.

"The first thing I did was to furnish him with information that went into two pamphlets warning against everyday, supermarket white rice. Even though the literature didn't directly accuse Pontude or any its chemicals, I insisted that Bart distribute the pamphlets anonymously because I was afraid he would become the designated lightning rod if controversy were to ensue. Bart was extremely naive when it came to practical matters. At around that time, he suddenly decided to leave his wife because he thought he was being followed and he didn't want to expose her to any possible danger. So I found him a small apartment not far from where I live. We met there twice a day. Three weeks ago I learned I was carrying Bart's child." Here, Mattie had to pause, and struggled to recompose herself. "Knowing what I knew, it became unthinkable that I continue to be party to Pontude's cover-up. I immediately resolved to give Bart the complete file on the KKK chemical; which meant I had to smuggle it out of the lab because all in-house photocopying is strictly monitored. That was the report you saw that day in the restaurant. I was supposed to give Bart a copy later that evening, and he was to leak it to the press the following morning." Mattie took another deep breath.
"The chemical KKK is used to grow white rice, grapes and potatoes. Tests have consistently shown that people who consume at least one of those food groups once a day, after ten years, increase their risk of contracting cancer by a factor of eighty. Another top secret Pontude report concluded that, based on the most conservative extrapolations, 75% of all mortalities in America by the year 2050 will be either directly or indirectly attributable to the chemical KKK. They say it's significantly more lethal than DDT which was banned twenty five years ago.

"I was supposed to meet Bart in the library that night, but he never. . . ." Mattie sputtered and wiped away fresh tears.” "Mr. Ax,” she said in a wrenching, tremulous voice, “the information contained in that report would not only have totally destroyed the reputation and financial back-bone of Pontude, but the entire agro-chemical industry would have been brought to its knees by Federal investigations.

"I just can't believe how loyalty blinded me all those years,” she whimpered. “But they kept making you believe them. And we continued to give the people who signed our checks the benefit of the doubt. They, the directors, kept changing the experiments, convincing us in the lab that the last result wasn't conclusive. They would then devise a new experiment, introducing yet another extraneous variable, but the results were always the same. It was a devious, unthinkable ruse on their part. We were pawns at the service of their profits. We, the public, meant nothing to them. But thank God someone found out. If I hadn't smuggled the report out, Bart would still be alive." Mattie could no longer hold back. "I killed him," she sobbed. "I killed the man I love."

"You were doing what you believed to be right," I insisted, ignoring her bawling, and recalling one of my favourite comics: "The monsters serving on Pontude's board of directors will pay for their crimes against humanity."
Mattie sponged the steady flow of tears with another kleenex. "Where's the copy of the report now?" I asked. My sixth sense was telling me there was no time to lose.
"It's hidden," she sniffed.
"Maybe we should get it and make sure it gets in the right hands."
"You mean now?" she asked, her voice cracking, her wet eyes flashing worry.

"I think so. You might be next on their hit list. Pontude is probably working backwards to the source. One of the rice wholesalers must have ratted about the pamphlets that they traced to Bart-Bell and then to you. And while they can't be sure what you have leaked to Bart, if anything, you can be sure they know you were having an affair, which means you're on the wrong side of their vital interests." Pointing to my head wounds, I went on to explain: "They roughed me up badly a few nights ago, and they assassinated Bart. As far as I'm concerned, the writing is on the wall, which means we had better act fast." I paused, impatiently granting Mattie only precious seconds to re-assess the situation.
"Did Bart know that he was to receive the complete KKK file that night?"

"He knew."
"They might have tortured the information out of him."
"Bart would never talk."
"I saw the body; it was almost unrecognizable." Again Mattie broke down, burying her face in her shawl.
"The report is hidden in the downtown library," she finally volunteered through her tears and sobbing.
I had just started up the motor when a black limousine noiselessly arrived and stopped parallel to us. A tinted window rolled down. It framed a gun held by a hirsute, muscular arm pointing at Mattie's head. The back door opened. "Would you like to join us for a friendly afternoon picnic? " invited the all-too-familiar, raspy voice of Phidias Anomalitis. His gorilla face was set in brute triumph.
Our options were limited. I obediently got out, casually unsnapping and handing over the gun holster that was strapped to my leg, walked around the car and opened the door for Mattie who was too weak to get out on her own. I eased her into the limo's back seat where a goon in a suit was fondling a Friday night special. I had never seen him before, nor the neckless, muscle-wrapped driver.

"Blindfold and tie them up, Spot," ordered Phidias, a dictator gone mad with the power of life and death. Black kerchiefs were wound tightly over our eyes. "And check them out." The goon's clammy hands obediently performed an uncouth body search. When he found my crotched Smith & Wesson, he ghoulishly snickered and forced the barrel into my mouth. "Now suck it, big boy. Suck it up." Mattie started to whimper as she was being frisked.
"Shut up, bitch," said the goon, giving her a sharp slap in the face. Mattie clammed up, but I could feel her trembling.
"They're just using you, Phiddy," I charged defiantly, as if we were on a level playing field. The taste of gun steel was still in my mouth. "They don't give a damn about you, and when you're finished with us, they'll be finished with you."
"I'm calling the fucking shots, you fuck face, you," rebutted Phidias, demonstrating consummate debating skills and implicit admiration of William F. Buckley.

"Who are you working for?" I barked.
"None of your fucking business, fatman." It was a stupid question. The Phidiases in life never know for whom they are working. That's why things get done in such orderly fashion.
"Come on, Phiddy," I suggested in a palsy-walsy voice. "Talk to us. We're as good as dead, and we both know the dead can't talk." Phidias laughed, a heinous laugh that recalled a snuff film I was forced to watch while working on a case that confirmed how craven and depraved a species we are.

"It was fun killing Torso and it should be just as much fun killing you, Ax. What do you say, Spot?" The man called Spot started to laugh, or rather whinny and neigh like a horse with a claw up its rump. "Have you ever fucked a scarecrow, Spot?” referring to Mattie. Spot had to think a moment, and then started neighing again, high-pitched, feverish squeals blowing out of his nostrils in uneven snorts.

I wasn't sure or not if Mattie had grasped the implication of Phidias' lewd proposition, but I felt her body go slack against my arm and shoulder: she had passed out. "Go for it, Spot," encouraged Phidias. "Pretend she's dead." They both exploded into manic shrieking and caterwauling, like psychopaths for whom there is no right and wrong -- only the mad, delirious prospect of satisfying their savage lust for rape and murder.
I suddenly remembered Jane Hair mentioning that Cheyenne told her that someone saw Bart and Mattie entering the downtown library a few days ago. Could Cheyenne be the missing link? I decided to change my tack.
"Come on, Phiddy," I urged, interrupting his bestial fantasies. "Who put you up to it? Was it Cheyenne?"
"Cheyenne is my woman," he declared fatuously, and began clucking his tongue like an orang-utan.
"She told me she's your boss."
"She was lying to you."
"Did you make it with her?"
"She came begging for it."
"Didn't you find that a bit strange after she had rejected you all these years?"
"I know how good I am. It was just a question of her figuring it out for herself."
"She had it figured out, alright. Except your jealousy."
"You don't know nothing, Ax."
"She was just using you, Phiddy. She paid you, she laid you and you killed for her."
"You've been watching too much late-night TV, jack-ass," punned Phidias inadvertently.
"Open your eyes, Phiddy. She hired you to do someone else's dirty work, like Pontude Incorporated, for example. Why would someone suddenly refinance Cheyenne's outstanding mortgage and refurnish her home? You've been to her home?"
"Business has been booming lately."
"Since Cat and Torso left, business has gone down the sewer." Phiddy fell silent. I felt Mattie stir and come to; but she kept her head on my shoulder.
"So are you trying to tell me you killed Torso for the fun of it?" I persisted.
"I’m a body builder, Ax. Nothing more, nothing less."
"You're as transparent as window pane, Phiddy. And even if you did make it with Cheyenne, you damn well know that she was still in love with Torso. So you took advantage of your instructions to rough him up, and then kill him in a fit of jealousy."
"Torso dumped Cheyenne and she came running to me. Jealousy had nothing to do with it. I don't go killing people over fucking useless women."
"So why did you kill him?"
"I didn't kill him. He killed himself. He wouldn't talk. How am I supposed to know when a guy is ready to go. I'm no doctor."
“He’s no doctor,” echoed Spot from the back seat.
“Shut your fucking head, Spot, or I’ll blow it off.”
“Yes, boss.”
"I admire you, Phiddy, all set to take the rap for a hypocrite bitch like Cheyenne."
Phidias snickered. "You're the one who’s going to be taking a rap in your fucking brains in few minutes."
I felt like telling him that at least I had one -- but he probably wouldn't have understood.

"Cheyenne has blood on her hands," I hammered on. "You can put her behind bars for a long time, and save yourself and your one and only muscular ass years of prison anecdotes. Plea bargain 2nd-degree murder and you'll be flexing again in two, three years. Don't be a hero, Phiddy. The bitch isn’t worth it."

"Cheyenne's got nothing to do with this," was all he could say. There was another silence. The limousine suddenly veered right, throwing us all to the left, myself crunching into Mattie who was sandwiched up against the goon.
"Can't you drive, jerk-face," spitted Phidias.

"There was a fucking kid on the street."
"So fucking what. There are already too many fucking kids on the street."
"Sorry boss."
I could hear the goon lighting up a cigarette. The smell of tobacco made my dry mouth even drier. God only knows what I would have done to have the cold sting of wet beer on my lips.
"Tell me, Phiddy,” I said fighting back a dry cough. “What information were you trying to get out of Torso before you tortured him to death?"
"Why don't you tell me, genius detective. You seem to think you know everything."
“Isn’t it obvious," I answered. “You wanted to know who set him up with the pamphlets, and who was providing that person with all the negative information on white rice."
Affecting a philosophical pose, Phidias, in a slow, deliberate manner, concluded: "If everyone ate red meat like you and I, Ax, there wouldn't be all this stupid killing."
I shook my head. "You still don't get it, do you? There's nothing wrong with white rice. It's the poisonous herbicides and pesticides they use to grow the stuff."
"You don't believe that crap and neither do I, Ax."
"We'll be believing it in ten years from now."
"That's how long it takes for the effects to show up: like cancer, sterility, impotence." I observed the driver’s neck turning white.
"Give me a cigarette, Spot," growled Phidias in a lower octave.
"I thought you don't smoke."
"Just stop thinking and give me a butt." Phidias lit up, inhaled and started coughing. "My mother is 65 years old, Ax, and she eats white rice almost everyday."

The limousine suddenly slowed, turned right, and stopped. I heard the driver get out and then the sound of a sliding warehouse door lifting on chains. Phidias slid himself into the driver's seat and eased the vehicle up the ramp and into the building. The lift door closed behind us, accompanied by the clanking of bulky chains. "Take off their blindfolds, Spot," commanded Phidias. Spot yanked Mattie's head off my shoulder and roughly untied the kerchief. "Get out, bitch," he ordered. Spot made her climb over his knees. Leaning over me, his breath stunk worse than armpit sweat mixed with the cheap polyester of his suit. "Out," he barked. I opened my door and got out.

"Take a good look," invited Phidias, in a mocking, courteous voice. "Take a last look at your coffin."
My eyes went from the barbaric grin welded onto his Neanderthal face to the cavernous warehouse that was virtually empty save for wooden crates haphazardly stacked at the far end. High up on the walls were a few small windows through which narrow bars of rafter light allowed us to see ourselves and the faint outline of the building's dull interior. Given the gravity of our predicament, I felt almost perverse indulging in the refreshing coolness of the place.
In vain, I searched for an emergency exit or low window, either of which might have become part of an escape plan.
Now holding a gun in his hand, Phidias pointed to the crates. "Over there," he grunted, a porcine scowl spreading over his lecherous mouth. Mattie clutched my arm for support.

Our footsteps echoed loudly in the eerily empty place. I thought I detected the smell of formaldehyde in the air, or was that Phidias' after-shave. Listening to the five pairs of shoes clunking ominously on the cement floor, it was impossible not to consider the very real possibility that we were being led to our execution. Mattie started to whimper, and then her legs buckled. I slipped my right arm around her upper waist beneath her arms.

"The fatman is a gentleman, Spot. What do you say to that?"
"I'll mention that at his funeral." The three of them burst out laughing, blood-curdling cackles whose maniacal effects were amplified by the lively acoustics. Then Spot and Phidias started to whisper something, but I couldn't make out what they were saying. Their feverish voices sounded like the flapping wings of birds trapped in a cave; but we were the ones trapped.
Approaching the far wall, I figured there would be an exit door behind the crates, which meant there would have to be a space there.
Phidias pulled away two crates from the others. I sat Mattie down on the lowest. "Phiddy," I began. "Do you mind if I take a piss behind the crates?"
"Piss your pants, fatman, and you'd better enjoy it because it's going to be your last."
I sat down on the crate next to Mattie's whose head was slumped between her drooping shoulders. Phidias went over to inspect one of the half open boxes near the west wall.

"Get down to it, Spot-boy," he shouted jocularly, yanking off a crate lid. The order was faithfully repeated by the echo.
Without so much as a seconds hesitation, Spot cocked his gun, went up to Mattie who didn't even look at him, and pulled the trigger, spilling her brains and blood all over the place.

"Are you fucking stupid," yelled Phidias, a stunned expression flushing over his mulish mouth. He ran up Spot, grabbed him by the collar, and lifted him off his feet. "You were supposed to question her first you stupid fucking . . ."
Before he could finish, the west door, which I had overlooked half way down the wall, was suddenly smashed open followed by a blitzkrieg of gun fire.

Five seconds later there was dead silence.

Just beyond the parallelogram of light that slanted in through the open door were three policemen crouched on their right knees, taking aim behind their semi-automatics. Bullet ridden and dead on the floor were the bleeding bodies of Spot, Phidias and the driver. Not far from them, her head lying in a pool of blood, her lifeless eyes looking up, was Mattie.

I recognized South Central's Assistant District Police Chief Ramsey Bull standing behind his officers, to the right of the light. "Nice to see you boys," I acknowledged in calculated understatement.
"I thought you were retired, Ax," said Bull sullenly. Years ago, when he couldn't hire me, he took to disliking me.
One of the policemen was instructed to examine the bodies, while the other two continued to take aim through their sights.

"You had better call an ambulance," said Bull to one of his underlings. I could already hear sirens in the distance.
My attention was suddenly diverted to the other end of the warehouse where the heavy chains of the sliding door began to rattle, and the huge door started to lift. Blazing light poured into the opening; and then a figure in silhouette stepped into the luminosity and stood perfectly still. I felt my heart tighten and breathing speed up. Narrowing my eyes, I forced myself to look through the light to the shimmering body that looked like it was levitating, when I suddenly felt myself being swept headlong towards it, as if caught in the drag of a powerful gravitational force. I surrendered to it like a sinner who yearns to be saved and healed.

Without so much as a word of acknowledgment to the man who had just saved my life, I sped by Ramsey Bull who spit unquietly on the floor as if to say: you're welcome, brother.

I was practically flying toward the square of white light that got bigger and bigger when the figure suspended in it suddenly burst out and bee-lined straight towards me as I were some sacred source of life; it was a feeling I had never understood before but which every parent of a small child understands.

And then time stopped and I was granted the first perfect moment of my life. I felt Cat’s arms wrapping tightly around my waist, hugging me, squeezing me, pressing her entire being into mine which was doing the same.

And then just like that, the I and We were one. After a lifetime of false starts and pathetic finishes, I was finally connected.

It was then I realized that everything, and I mean everything in life, is grace.
To this day, I have no idea for how long we held each other. When I finally looked up, we were the only ones left in the warehouse.

"I didn't go to the police station this morning," Cat whispered in my ear, her ticklish peach-sweet breath causing me to shudder with pure joy. "I was so worried about you, honey," she explained in short breaths. "So I followed you to the lab and then to the Plaza parking. And when I saw the driver in the limousine spying on you through binoculars, I called the police. I'm so glad your alive."

She smothered me with love and kisses for the rest of the day and night.


The next morning, observing Cat feeding the birds just arrived on our balcony, I was introduced to yet another dimension of her emerging angeldom, and wondered how somebody so apparently mature for her years and so complex could fall in love with a jerk like me. As the days turned into weeks, I learned that Cat was much more than a gorgeous body for whom every man on earth would torch his shoe-laces. More compelling than her flesh (well almost) was the mute radiance she extended to all the things she touched as she conducted her daily affairs, that rare, but unmistakable light someone gives off when being kindly and considerate of other people; and all of this despite the disadvantaged early years which left lots of scar tissue. But she accused no one, and forgave everyone -- well almost.
As for myself, easily the lesser half of the team, I couldn’t have asked for a better seat while Cat was learning to role with the punches and counter with her own when the occasion required it. And as the story of her life began to take shape, it told of someone quietly spending her days doing good deeds which were their own reward, the sum of which make nations great, but which nations invariably find too insignificant to include in their histories. Perhaps that's why we need literature, even trash like this, to thank these people.

Much later in the day, beneath the muted glow of a particle-blighted L.A. twilight that was waiting like a wound to break open in the west, they lowered the coffin of Bart-Bell into the cool earth.

Long tumbling clouds the colour of slit salmon rolled in like gashes across the unusually low sky, a sounding board for the clumps of earth now thudding on the coffin lid.

Squeezed between the jagged row of muscle-twitching behemoths about to burst their tweeds was the small, frail, figure of the widow Cat bawling her head off over the man who got himself killed because it was his ambition to make our world a better place to live. Be as it may that Bart-Bell was ‘short’ on I.Q., he was ‘long’ on where it counts in life, judging by how he chose to live his life. For that he deserves our gratitude.

Unlike most of us who are just stupid enough to accommodate our worst instincts, Bart-Bell had the courage to live his convictions with such intensity and purpose, the example of his life should give us all cause to pause before we accuse others and not ourselves.

Thanks to Bart-Bell's initiative, I was now personally prepared to spend the rest of my days searching among the tens of thousands of books in the municipal library for the lost document that would complete the task begun by Bart and Mattie.

I was pleased to see Jane Hair among the mourners. Our eyes met and held steady for a meaningful moment. I was confident that Jane and I would become good friends.

Cheyenne was noticeably absent. She would have a lot to answer for. But with all her potential accusers dead, she would probably live happily ever after in yet another calculated reincarnation.

About the fresh flowers that kept arriving anonymously at Bart's grave every second Sunday for an entire year, a fifty dollar encouragement to the tight-lipped florist helped him remember the name of Mort Ives who, as much as any man I had ever met, knew how to think the right thoughts. Good old Mort. The perfect mix of tough and tender, he was America's best rolled into one. And I knew it wouldn't be too long before Cat and I would once again set our eyes on his magnificent rice fields, and together, we would work hard to create the right conditions to induce all of humanity to realize its human potential in this wonderful planet of ours that is still spinning despite major respiratory problems.

More than most people I don’t like attending funerals. But not because the idea of being dead disturbs me: nothingness is easy. In fact it's so easy you can do it forever.

It's the living that bother me on sight. We have all been witnesses to that counterfeit conduct and piety at funerals: heads bowed, grief and solemnity jumping from face to face like a game of leap-frog, and that all-too-familiar, hushed, baritone cemetery voice making respectful reference to the preciousness of life that will be promptly desecrated as soon as the ceremony is over.

Everywhere and every second on this planet the dead are being born and buried, and it shouldn't require the death of someone we know to get us serious about this one-time event called life that calls us to act -- if only for the briefest time when compared to the big time.

And for those of you, who, like myself upon self-examination, have been brought to your knees in self-loathing and disgust, we must remember that it's not only what we have been that matters, but what we can become. There's no law that says we must always be what we have been. As long as we're alive we are all at the beginning of our next journay -- which is right now at this very minute. And it doesn't matter how bad we have been, how many school windows we have ventilated, or how many crimes of ingratitude we have committed against people that care for us, as long as we realize that among the many paths that lie before us we can always choose the better one.

All of us can be better than what we are now. And so can L.A. My one and only L.A. that I have all too often likened to a pestilence.

But once upon a time, when L.A. was still an innocent child with nothing but hopes ahead of it, it received its name because somebody thought this was the city of angels. And there's no reason why it can't be that way again, if each of us, in his own small way, begins to look for those angels that just might be ourselves who once upon a time performed enough good deeds that the heavens smiled upon us -- we the people for whom the spirit was more real than all the things that hurt us.

I know we can do it. I know we can learn to dream again. And if in our streets and malls and canyons and hillsides we can find those lost angels, I promise you that I'll retract a retraction bigger than Galileo's of every bad thing I've ever said about this city of mine. This city of nights, this city of lights, my beloved L.A.















Arts & Opinion, a bi-monthly, is archived in the Library and Archives Canada.
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