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?
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
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
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,"
this animal bothering you?" seethed the bartender, his
eyes firing bullets.
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
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.
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
"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
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
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.
"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."
"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.
"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."
"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
"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
"The name's Ax. Jack Ax. But everybody calls me Brick."
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."
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."
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
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
don't think they would . . ." She couldn't speak her
"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
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
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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
"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
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."
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.
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
“And that was it. He never showed up.”
At this point I believed Chin and decided I had no further
"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.”
“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
“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
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
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
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
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,”
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
“There’s not much to tell, other than I’m
a private detective and that I’ve been hired to find
“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
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,
“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
"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
“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
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?"
"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
"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
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.
CHAPTER FIVE: HOLDING COURT WITH MORT
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
As it so happened she was wearing one-size-too-small white
leggings which fit like skin around her shapely legs and precocious
"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 only a few hours later, one of them wants to take
you out. Just like that," concluded Cat, more perplexed
"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
"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
"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
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?"
"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
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
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
“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
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.
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
"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."
"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
"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
"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."
"I'm afraid so."
"I’m sorry, Mr. Ax. I just can’t." Her
arm was barred across the title of the report, prompting me
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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,
"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
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,
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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."
"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
"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,
"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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"So you're detective Jack X. Ax." He tugged at his
smooth chin as if a beard were there. "What's the X.
"You’re addressed as Detective Ax?"
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
"Why don't you get lost in a movie afterwards, or hit
"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,
I didn’t know what to do with myself so I just sat at
the kitchen table guzzling bottled water and smoking one cigarette
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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,
"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
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.
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
"Sorry to alarm you like this, but you never know in
“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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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?"
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
“He’s no doctor,” echoed Spot from the back
“Shut your fucking head, Spot, or I’ll blow it
"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."
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
"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
"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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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.