Friday, November 4, 2011

Cover Story

This fictional short story, written by and for adults in 1996 and containing references to straight and gay sex, death, gambling, bodily fluids and (omigosh!) smoking, is purely fictional. All characters, most places and many factoids are pulled completely out of my feeble mind. Any similarities to real people, places or facts are simply a horrible, horrible accident. -- Oblio

Inside the darkened room on the 6th floor of the Bayou Casino and Resort, the two lovers were engaged in the favorite pastime of most who came to the quiet resort town of Indian River, Louisiana -– they were fucking each other’s brains out. They had met downstairs in the Creole Bar, and after ingesting mass quantities of beer and kamikaze shooters, the next logical step was to retire upstairs and do each other until they passed out – at least, that was the plan.

They were not shy about their lovemaking, and the hotel guests on all sides, above and below could hear the grunts and moans of strenuous sex for the better part of an hour. She was on top, riding him like she was in the rodeo as they bounced and bashed away on the bed. She began to get a white-hot noise in her head and knew this was going to be an orgasm to remember… he started to feel faint and knew he would come like a volcano. They simultaneously increased their pelvic thrusts in anticipation of a mutually explosive climax. As they came together, screaming with ecstasy, they immediately lost consciousness and slumped hard against the headboard –dead as doornails.

Detective Henry Lofy knew the good and bad parts of Indian River, a sleepy burg hard on the shores of Lake Ponchartrain and due West of New Orleans. Having grown up as a wild child in the Big Easy, he lucked out by graduating from college with a degree in Police Science and fell into a job as a dispatcher for the N.O.P.D., where he toiled in a variety of posts for over ten years. He worked up through the ranks, eventually earning his Detective’s shield, and immediately transferred from the rot of downtown New Orleans to the dank beauty of Indian River, a favorite haunt from his drunken college years.

Looking much younger than his actual age of 41 years, Henry was one of those rare men that had learned how to dress and comport himself from the many women he’d called lovers throughout his life. Although not handsome in the traditional sense, his dark eyes, sandy hair and lanky frame combined to give him a magnetism that was quite appealing at first, and only compounded once he began to speak… his well-read intelligence could be both a blessing and a curse, depending on his mood.

He never wore his police uniform, preferring instead any number of light cotton suits that he loved but was constantly ironing the wrinkles out of. He considered himself a confirmed bachelor, but knew deep down that he was too particular about his job and lifestyle for any serious relationship to take hold. He smoked too much, slept too little, and fussed over his receding hairline, discreetly hidden by a series of expensive hats and a close-cropped hairstyle.

Sitting at the wheel of his White ’66 T-Bird convertible in the parking lot of the IRPD, he lit his first Lucky of the evening when a call came over the radio: “SSE to 66T, do you copy?” Henry sighed, took a drag and picked up and keyed the mic: “66T copies – How may I be of service to you, Sharon my dear?” Her response was immediate and terse: “66T, please use the proper code name ‘SSE’ as previously instructed, and haul ass down to the Bayou and see Junior. We got another pair of screamers keeping up the nice gamblers and their hookers!” “Yes, Ma’am!” was all Henry could manage without laughing into the mic. “SSE” stood for “Star Ship Enterprise”, and he knew that Sharon just loved to make as many Star Trek references on the radio as she could in a single evening. Oh well, he thought, at least she was a great mother to his two beautiful nieces, even if she was a little strange.

He finished his smoke, carefully snuffed out the butt in the ashtray of his immaculate ‘Bird, and twisted the ignition key. The rebuilt 428 big-block was the original engine in this fine beast, and it started right up with a growl from the glass-packs and settled into a motorboat-like burble. “Hmmm, a ten-minute ride to the Bayou calls for something short and sweet, so what shall it be?” he said to himself while rummaging around in the center console for some appropriate music. “Ahh, a little Brubeck shall do nicely”, and he slipped in the CD, shifted into gear and slowly pulled into the light traffic on a clear, muggy night, heading for the other side of Indian River.

As he cruised through the heart of town, he saw many of the people who knew him and his car from a mile away, and most nodded their heads or waved in his direction. Even those local citizens who got on the wrong side of Henry’s local law acknowledged his passing by, for Henry was tough AND fair to everyone he came into contact with – something not remotely like the peace officers in New Orleans. He drove the speed limit, top down, while the long version of “Take Five” oozed out of the six-speaker sound system he’d installed himself. As the final drum solo reached its last few percolations, he pulled into the circular driveway of the Bayou Casino and Resort and parked at the curb opposite the front entrance. Leonard the valet was on duty and coveted Henry’s car, so it was normal for him to come up to Henry and ask him for the millionth time, “Hey, ‘Shoe, when you gonna’ sell me this fine au-to-mo-bile?”

Henry threw him the keys as he walked across the cooling asphalt. “Make me an offer that you can back up with cash, and I’ll turn it down just like I always do, Big Man! Be sure to watch my baby.” Leonard smiled, took the keys and parked the car angled just so in front of the main casino entrance, next to the BMW 850 and the Escalade – it always looked good to have nice wheels out front. Henry strolled through the forced opulence of the Bayou’s main lobby and made a left away from the gambling floor and into the offices where the real work of schmoozing high rollers and counting money took place. He walked through a nondescript doorway off the long hall and into the palatial outer-office of Lamont Beverly Jr., the casino’s owner and son of the infamous Lamont Beverly Sr., the casino’s builder and known fixer of big-time college football games in his day.

Sitting at the dark rosewood desk was Junior’s secretary and main squeeze Hallie, dressed to the nines in a black velvet catsuit. “Hey there, MISTER. Lofy, I heard you were stopping by. Go on in – he's waiting for you.” She shot him a sideways glance that someone else might have mistaken for a come-on, but Henry knew that she was always watching out for her man, no matter who walked into the office. Henry had just placed his hand on the glass doorknob to enter when the door was snatched out of his hand and out rushed Lamont Beverly Jr., obviously in a fret about something, shouting “Goddammit, Henry, I’m getting tired of this kind of thing! As if I have the time to worry about people’s love lives or something. You’d think they’d at least keep the bed in one spot!!”

All five-feet-two of Junior was in a tizzy, his expensive razor-cut hairstyle and red smoking jacket giving him the appearance of a pissed-off maitre’d. Henry held up both hands and caught Junior before he could crash forward and knock them both over. “Easy, Junior, just tell me what’s up and why you needed me here in such a hurry.” Junior’s mouth continued to flap for a moment, then he stopped jawing and relaxed. “Sorry, Henry. I just got a little spooked tonight and thought you’d better be here when I checked this one out. We got several calls from the 5th, 6th AND 7th floors about some serious rutting taking place on the 6th floor. Now, you know how these things usually go – an hour or two of loud screwing and then they go to sleep and everyone goes about their own business.”

Junior stopped to light a cigarette, took a long drag and continued. “This one’s a little unusual, ‘cuz after an hour of complaining, we got several more calls about loud screaming then noises like something hitting the wall, then… well, then nothing! The Desk Manager calls the room – no answer. The floor Dick knocks on the door – no answer! Damn, Henry, I ain’t got time for this shit!” As Junior relayed his story to Henry, they walked into Junior’s private elevator and rode to the sixth floor, where the doors opened behind a well-placed tapestry at the end of the hall and away from curious guests. They walk up to Room 613, where they meet two nervous looking guys standing a few feet from the room’s door.

Henry nods to them. “You the Night Dick?”, he asks the beefy one and gets a nod back. “I haven’t met you before. I’m Detective Lofy from the IRPD and you can leave now because you certainly don’t want to have to write a report on this, now do you?” The man wags his head in agreement and bounds down the nearest stairwell. “Well now, Charles”, he says, talking to the Night Manager, “is this one a usual case, or should I get out my gun right now?” Charles smiles and chuckles softly. “Henry, I don’t make judgment ‘bout nuthin’. Junior called ‘cuz you the law around here. I’m just the Night Manager.” Henry reached out to Charles and says, “Fair enough – key please.” He slips the card key into the door, inserts the deadbolt key and slowly turns it until the bolt slides away, puts his hand on his holster, then gently pushes the door into the room.

Once the door had swung open all the way, Henry peers into the darkened room with a bit of apprehension, but slowly steps inside, with Junior and Charles close behind. “Hold on, you two – just cool your jets in the hallway while I take an official look-see, OK?” Henry whispers back to the two men, who shuffle backwards into the lit hall. The room is totally dark, so once inside Henry stands still for a few moments to let his eyes get acclimated. Slowly, the features in the room begin to reveal themselves. The first things he sees are clothes strewn all over the floor. Without moving further into the room, hand on his holster for good measure, he continues to let the room come to him. Then, almost as an anticlimax, he can see the king-size bed and two dark shapes lying entangled with each other, leaning against the headboard.

He gingerly sidles up to the bed, waiting for something to happen, but nothing does. Suddenly, a smile comes across his face as he recognizes the dankly sweet smell of sex that permeates the room. A sort of cocktail of perfume, sweat, cum and ‘hotel room’ that you never forget once you’ve had the joy of creating it. With his vision now totally adjusted to the darkness, he takes his hand off the holster and reaches down to check their pulses… the two people on the bed are obviously dead. He calls out softly to the hall, “Junior, send Charles back downstairs to call for an ambulance and the Coroner, and tell them no hurry. Come on in here and close the door behind you, but don’t touch anything!”

A moment later, with Junior behind him, Henry takes a pen from his pocket and uses it to switch on the light. The sight in front of them is one of those strange visions that are impossible to keep from gawking at. Lying on the bed, an obviously dead pair of lovers tangled up in the bedclothes. John Doe is sitting up against the headboard, with his face shrouded by the upper torso of a voluptuous female straddling him, with her head and upper body leaning against the wall. “There’s the loud thump our neighbors next door heard,” he says to Junior, as the two men just stand a few moments and stare at this tableau. “If they weren’t expired, I might be inclined to say ‘Pardon us’ and let them keep going”, Henry says with a grin. “Junior, you OK with this right now?” He looks at Junior, who seems a little paled by what he sees, and says “Easy now. I’m going to move the lady here a bit so we can get a look at their faces, and you tell me if you recognize either one of them, OK?”

Henry reaches down to the woman and holds her by both shoulders, using the surrounding sheets as a barrier between his hands and her skin, and gently draws her away from the wall where her head was resting. Once she was upright, Junior comes around Henry’s side and peers at both of the victim’s faces. “Nope – sorry, Henry, they’re just another anonymous pair getting their rocks off in one of MY rooms. Lord knows what’ll happen if some of the other guests on this floor get wind of this, ‘cuz sure as shootin’ we’ll start getting calls…” Henry cuts him short; “Easy, Junior… just be cool and this will not raise an eyebrow anywhere. Why don’t you go downstairs and check on Charlie’s call for the ambulance, and for God’s sake, make sure you two keep quiet about this, OK?”

Once Junior left, the room’s stillness really set in. Henry let the female rest her head back on the wall so the Coroner could see the condition of the couple as they were found, then he began his slow walk around the room, touching nothing but seeing everything. As he circled around the bed, his first impression was that it was definitely NOT an unusual scene. A naked couple lying dead on a bed wasn’t a typical situation in Indian River, but he had seen his share of dead bodies in hotel rooms during the last 10 years. Usually, there was a gun, drugs and an angry lover involved, but this pair seemed somehow different.

He walked over to the dresser and saw two glasses half-filled with liquor – “Probably from the bar downstairs”, he thought to himself. He made a mental note to find out who was working in the lounge earlier in the evening and have a little chat with whoever it was. He noticed there was no luggage in the room, so he assumed this was a purely physical meeting, not a planned overnight stay. Still, he needed to find out who these poor souls were, check for priors, see if either one of them were registered into another room in the hotel, see if… something caught his eye on the nightstand on the other side of the bed. He walked over and noticed the remnants of a large joint left in the ashtray. He got a tissue from the bathroom and carefully folded the roach into a little bundle, putting it in his pocket. May as well have it checked out for something special that could have been soaked into the weed. Then he spied something else – he reached down between the bed and the nightstand and picked up an opened condom wrapper, again using his pencil. “Damn”, he thought to himself, “two responsible adults practicing safe sex and they wind up dead”.

He searched for and found a man’s wallet and ID in the tangled clothing, noting the anonymous face, name and Slidell address on the driver’s license – could be real or faked, you never knew. Her purse or ID was nowhere to be found… not surprising at all; she’d probably carried her money in her brassiere and left her personal belongings – where? He gazed at the condom wrapper perched on his pencil and figured to get a nice set of fingerprints from it – probably better than the cocktail glasses, which had been sweating moisture from the now-melted ice inside. He bundled up the condom wrapper as he had with the roach, walked over to the closed room door, turned around, leaned back and took in the entire scene with a laser-like intensity, as if he had just walked in and had not already been here for almost 15 minutes. The naked bodies, the glasses of booze on the dresser, the roach in the ashtray, the condom wrapper, the clothes strewn on the floor, the absence of luggage – it all seemed so logical that he thought to himself, “Something tells me that there’s more to this than meets the eye”. He quietly thanked the NOPD for the decade of brutal police work that had given him a second sense about things. That’s probably why he had such an easy time being a cop in this town, because he was a thorough SOB. He closed his eyes and waited for the ambulance, softly humming the melody from “Take Five” to himself, imagining what these two poor dead souls were enjoying before they met their untimely demise…

Detective Henry Lofy was pissed off as he sat, fuming, in the office of County Coroner Doc Etoufee’. He jumped out of the overstuffed chair and paced back and forth across the office, while the Doc sat at his desk with a calm, almost bemused look on his face, watching Henry being pissed off. Doc was in his golden years at the Coroner’s office, having spent 45 years as a public servant in the healthcare sector. A portly man of 70 years, he was nevertheless fit and vital, and carried his 5’9” frame and 250 lbs with a measured dignity. “Now Henry”, he said, “there’s no sense getting yourself all worked up over this. Just let us have a little more time and we’ll figure out what the devil is going on in that town of yours”. Henry almost jumped over the desk at the Coroner, but stopped himself short, sighed heavily and fell back into the chair he had just leapt out of.

“I’m really sorry, Doc, but this whole thing has me spooked! Who’da thought three weeks ago that we’d be here today with four pairs of unexplained deaths in Indian River, all while having sex in hotel rooms?! I swear, in all the years I’ve been in police work, this is the weirdest series of events I have ever been involved with!” Henry wasn’t overstating the case he was working on, either. In the three weeks since he discovered the nude bodies of the two illicit lovers at the Bayou Casino, three more couples had expired in the same fashion – one more pair at the Bayou and two at the Ponchartrain Manor. He had been able to keep the whole thing quiet for a while during his ever-expanding investigation, but after the discovery of the fourth pair leaked out to the Hoteliers Union, Henry had been pressured to solve the mystery by everyone from the Mayor to the Chamber of Commerce. And they wanted an answer soon or they’d find themselves another Chief of Police!

Now Henry was really under the gun to figure out what the hell was going on, before the local media found out about the mystery deaths, blared it all over TV and sent Indian River’s tourism trade into the toilet. No, he was going to solve this case, no matter what it would take – his own sense of honor was now at stake. He thought for a minute and said, “Doc, do you agree that this series of hotel deaths and their cause is a complete mystery to you?” Doc Etoufee’ smiled and shook his head in agreement. “Henry, we have performed complete – and I mean COMPLETE – autopsies on every damned one of those eight poor souls, and I’ll be dipped if I can establish a cause of death. No force trauma, no poison, no physical defects, save for Ms. Phillips pregnancy, and it’s a sure bet she didn’t even know it yet. I swear Henry, it’s as if every one of them… well, just stopped living! Like someone up there pulled the plug and they died where they laid. At least they was having fun when they, uh, met their great reward”.

Henry slowly rose from his chair and walked over to the window, looking out over the New Orleans skyline as the midday sun began to really heat things up. "Doc, you’ve been a gem through this whole thing, and I really owe you big-time, but we have to reach out now to some high-powered specialist who can help us with this mess. Otherwise, we’re both gonna’ be lookin’ for new jobs!” Doc slowly shook his head in agreement. “I agree with you one thousand percent, Henry, but who do you suggest?” Henry cocked an eyebrow towards the Doc in a conspiratorial fashion. “Doc, do you have any connections at the CDC offices in Atlanta?” This time, it was Doc Etoufee’ who jumped out of his chair. “HENRY – are you really contemplating getting the Feds involved in this? My God, man, one whiff of this and you’ll be getting national exposure, never mind local media!”

Henry gave Doc a reassuring look. “No, no, no, Doc. I don’t mean calling in the Cavalry with flags waving and guns shooting. I mean, do you know someone on a personal level that you could invite down here for some professional guidance and a home-cooked dinner who might be amenable to listening to our problem and giving us some advice. Sort of a mutual admiration visit covered in the veneer of business, if you know what I mean”. Doc looked thoughtful for a few moments, then his face brightened up. “Well hell yes, I know exactly who to call. Her name’s Belinda Pomeroy, and she’s one of my former technicians. A real whiz kid, that Belinda. Was snapped up in her third year here at our offices by the Feds and transferred over to Atlanta must be, oh, five or six years ago now. She helped me out with a botulism scare in Houma two years ago, and said she’d love any opportunity to come visit with me and the missus.”

Henry smiled at this revelation, like he had just uncovered an important clue. “Doc, please give Miss Belinda a discreet call, won’t you? The sooner the better! And be sure to call me for a dinner invitation when she just happens to be sitting in your grand estate drawing room, hear?”

As he drove the twenty miles from Indian River a few days later, through Kenner to Metairie, Henry was feeling a little bit nervous about meeting Belinda Pomeroy, the forensic pathologist friend of Doc Etoufee’. He wasn’t nervous about anything in particular, but having to ask for help to solve this series of mysterious deaths was out of character for him. “Probably some stupid male ego thing”, he thought to himself, as he cruised in the late afternoon. He had dutifully washed the ‘Bird, pressed his suit and picked out a new tie to wear for the occasion – you never know what kind of interesting situations can develop when you meet a new lady.

A few things worried Henry, though. The way Doc talked about her, Ms. Belinda was a “whiz kid” in the field of forensics, and he had worked with her a number of years back. Had her time in the tomb-like offices of the CDC in Atlanta taken the shine off her methodology? Had the Doc accidentally appraised her as to the true reason for her invitation to supper? Did she get the impression that she was getting “set-up” with one of the Doc’s single friends? Henry laughed out loud at the thought of a blind date – he hadn’t been on one since his days in college. “No, Henry, this is ALL business”, he said to himself. “Keep your mind on the seriousness of the problem at hand, and no matter how sweet she may be, just be a nice fellow and don’t scare her off”.

Once he had reached the outskirts of Metairie, he exited the highway and found himself passing through some of the oldest neighborhoods in the area, with beautifully restored antebellum homes fronted by sweeping yards with sculpted gardens and huge, grand old trees. Looking at his directions, Henry followed the drive as it meandered for about a mile, then turned left on Acacia Lane and looked for the Doc’s address. As he pulled up to the curb in front of 115 Acacia, he was taken aback by the grandeur of the home Doc lived in with his wife of 45 years, Lila Etoufee’. Henry had met her at a county Christmas function a few years ago, but wondered if she would remember him from that single evening. Deciding to leave the convertible top down (this looked like a very SAFE neighborhood), Henry gave himself the once-over in the rear view mirror – no razor cuts on his face, no shaving cream under his ear, tie straight. He picked up the gift-wrapped bottle of Peppermint Schnapps (Doc’s favorite) from the back seat and walked up the driveway to the magnificent front veranda and porch, dominated by a five-foot wide mahogany front door inlaid with stained glass. He reached up to ring the bell, but the door opened suddenly, with Miss Lila beaming at Henry from inside the entrance.

“HENRY LOFY! It is so good to see you again! I keep asking Bernard to invite you over, but he always forgets!” Lila takes the bottle from Henry’s hand and gives him big hug, dragging him into the house (so much for the forgetful wife!). The inside of the home was as beautiful as the exterior, and exuded a warmth that seemed to permeate him almost immediately. There was the requisite grand stairway in the main entrance, leading gracefully up to the second floor, with tables everywhere covered to bursting with flowers, lit candles and mirrors. Truly a home to be proud of.

Ms. Lila took Henry by the arm and walked him through the mezzanine. “Bernard tells me you still have that lovely white Thunderbird. Perhaps before you leave this evening I could coax you into giving me a ride around the neighborhood? I just love convertibles, and my friends will be ever so jealous if they happen to see me out gallivanting around with a handsome young man like yourself!” Henry’s face felt like it got red and he smiled. “It would be a pleasure, Miss Lila, to have your beauty grace my humble chariot”. She laughed as they walked out through the back of the house, on to a covered veranda and patio area. The veranda was magically lit with lamps and candles, an open pit fireplace and the warm glow from inside the house.

Sitting on a large sofa in the center of the veranda was the Doc and (apparently) Miss Belinda Pomeroy, the reason Henry was here. They were laughing out loud at something as he and Miss Lila came out, and got up to welcome them both. “Henry, glad you could make it out here this evening. May I introduce you to Belinda Pomeroy, my friend and former co-worker?” Well, if Henry had any preconceived notions about Ms. Belinda, he couldn’t have been more wrong. He found himself shaking hands with the most beautiful black woman he had ever met, easily six inches taller than him and at least ten years his senior. Her long hair was swept up in a graceful bun, which accentuated her striking features and slim build. Her smile was dazzling!

“A pleasure to meet you, Henry! Lila has already given me your curriculum vitae, so I must confess that I know more about you than you do about me. Of course, Bernard speaks very highly of you”. Henry smiled at this revelation. “The pleasure is all mine, Ms. Pomeroy”. She gives him a mock scowl. “Please, it’s Belinda”. They both sit on the sofa, joined by the Etoufees, and the evening begins.

The next three hours are spent consuming large quantities of wine, antipasto, boiled red potatoes, wine, freshly baked bread, spinach salad with hot bacon dressing, wine, soft shell crab, deep fried scallops, wine, jambalaya, lemon sherbet, petit fors, and of course, more wine. With coffee and a fresh carrot cake staring at them from the low table, the meal was a complete orgy of gastronomic delights. Henry couldn’t remember the last time he had enjoyed a meal so much, especially given the most pleasant company of Lila, Doc and Belinda. All throughout the meal they had talked of many things, important and trivial, from classical and jazz music to law enforcement to gardening to the merits of hardtops versus convertibles. Once the carrot cake had been brought forth and some more wine was poured, the time had come to apprise Belinda of the true nature of her visit. Naturally, it was no surprise!

With Ms. Lila as an interested spectator, Henry and Doc began to unfold the bizarre tale of the Indian River deaths to Belinda, beginning with the first discovery and ending with their discussion in Doc’s office to call in for reinforcements. As they related the story to her, Belinda listened intently, asking no questions but raising an eyebrow every once in a while, letting out a soft low whistle, and refilling her goblet with more of the delicious vino. When they had finished tag-teaming her with their tale of mystery and intrigue, they fell silent, sipping wine and letting the information soak in for her. Several minutes went by without a word from any of them, the only sounds coming from the bubbling Koi pond a few feet away in the back yard.

After what seemed like an eternity, Belinda got up, walked over to the edge of the veranda, and looked over the sweeping foliage. She swallowed the last of the wine from the goblet in her hand, turned around quickly and looked directly at Henry and Doc, with a wide grin spreading across her face. “You two gentlemen are completely stumped, aren’t you”, she said with a Cheshire cat smile. Before they could answer, she threw back her head and laughed heartily. Then she came back over and sat down next to them. “First of all, I want you to know that no matter the reason why, I am so very glad that you used this as an excuse for me to come out and break bread with y’all, so let’s get that straight, OK?” She raised an eyebrow at a somewhat sheepish Doc and Henry, who both seemed relieved that she wasn’t miffed at their subterfuge.

“Belinda, we needed to get you out here without the slightest hint of what was up”, said Henry. “We simply could not afford having a whiff of this getting out before we had the chance to run it by you. Doc here was most effusive of his respect and admiration for your expertise, so you were the logical choice”. Belinda went over to Doc and kissed him gently on his shiny head. “Bernard, thank you for thinking of me that way. Truth be told, this sounds like something very out-of-the ordinary – definitely the most interesting thing I’ve heard about in some time. I hope I can help!” Doc let out a heavy sigh of relief. “Whew! Well, that’s good to know”, Doc said. “I just… well, I just wanted you to give us an objective opinion, you know, away from the heat of the CDC offices”.

That being said, the final round of the meal was completed, with nary a crumb of carrot cake left for the fish. While Ms. Lila swept away the dishes, Belinda started her questioning of the two puzzled men. “Bernard, were there any anomalies in the toxicology results, even the smallest?” “Nope, unless you count the fact that several of the victims tested positive for THC” Doc stated. “But we found traces of the cannabis in each case, and there was nothing out of the ordinary – no oil, dust or strange residue”. “What about inhalants unconnected to the weed or cigarettes they were found with”, she asked. “You know, toxic fumes, sprays or dust that infiltrated the alveoli in their lungs”. Doc sighed again, weary of the story, “Naw, we did a complete dissection and chemical analysis bombardment of the victims lungs, livers, kidneys, pancreas, stomach, bowel – you name it! Nothing! Like I told Henry that day, it’s as if they just stopped living!”

Henry was watching and listening to this exchange between the two medical professionals, and he had a sneaking suspicion of what Belinda was going to ask next, so he said it to her instead. “Belinda, what are the chances of you actually spending a little time here in New Orleans with the Doc and me to have a good long look at the bodies, the autopsy results and my fair city of Indian River?” Belinda flashed that amazing smile of hers – “Henry, you read my mind! I have beucoup vacation days accrued right now, and this case is very intriguing to me. Kind of a busman’s holiday. I’ll work it out at the office – no problem – and we can jump into this with both feet!” From the house, the three of them heard Miss Lila bellow “…AND YOU’LL BE STAYING HERE WITH BERNARD AND MYSELF, NOW WON’T YOU, MY DEAR?!?!” They all broke out laughing, and it was settled. All that was left was the evening drive in Henry’s “Chariot d’ Blanc”, and with Doc and Lila in back, Belinda lounging in the passenger seat, and Van Morrison on the stereo, Henry chauffeured as if he’d done it all his life.

Two days later, Belinda returned on ‘holiday’ and immediately began a thorough review of the forensic evidence that had already been amassed by Doc Etoufee’ at the New Orleans Coroner’s Office. She spent hours and hours poring over lab results, autopsy photos, medical reference books and notes, and even had a look-see at two of the bodies that had so far gone unclaimed by grieving relatives. Belinda’s methodology was sterling, leaving nothing to chance and making sure she had each of the facts well in-hand before she moved on to the next series of questions and revelations. She and Doc fell into the familiar working relationship they had enjoyed years before, sometimes not even speaking to one another about what would happen next… they were professionals and knew what they were doing.

Each night she would head back to the Etoufee’ home to sup with the lovely old couple or sit in the luxurious library studying her notes or simply walk through the neighborhood, lost in her thoughts of the poor souls who died so mysteriously, albeit with a final hurrah. By her fifth full day in town, she was coming to the end of the information available and began to wonder where this was all heading. Sitting in her temporary office down the hall from Doc’s, she sighed and reached for an autopsy reference volume she had already reviewed when her intercom beeped – it was Doc. “Belinda, can you mosey on over here for a moment?” She finished her coffee and made the short walk to Doc’s office, finding him at his desk with the phone held between his ear and shoulder, madly scribbling notes about whatever information was being given by the caller. She sat and waited for a moment, then Doc replaced the receiver and looked her square in the eye. “That was Henry… there’s another pair of fatalities in Indian River and he wants us over there right away!”

As they cruised swiftly through the early afternoon to the shores of Lake Ponchartrain in Doc’s black Lincoln Town Car, Belinda felt a rush of excitement about getting involved in a real-world case again. She had become a high-paid bureaucrat at the CDC, seeing less and less of the field, which she missed very much. She peppered Doc with questions… “Is the morbidity report the same as the others? Was there any marijuana found at the scene? Have they secured any samples of bodily fluids yet?” Patiently, Doc answered each time, “Yes, no, I’m not sure… here now, you’ll get your answers soon enough. Henry is really worried right now; good thing it happened while you’re here… er, ah, well it’s not actually a good thing, but… well, you know what I mean!” Although it had been some time since Doc had been back in Indian River, he knew exactly where to go, and following Henry’s directions drove directly to the scene of this latest mystery: the sprawling new Resort d’Beuleaux on the edge of town.

As they came to a stop in front of the ornate entrance of the lavish resort, Belinda spied Henry’s T-Bird off to the side, being scrutinized by two parking attendants. They exited the car and entered the building to find Henry, but he was already waiting inside the foyer, looking relaxed but wary. He walked up to Belinda and Doc, shaking hands with them both in a professional but friendly manner. “Thank you both for coming out here on such short notice. This latest… discovery is all of two hours old, and so far, no one’s the wiser. Let’s have a look, shall we?” They boarded the high-rollers lift from the foyer and began a slow ascent to the seventh floor when Belinda turned to Henry and began to speak, but Henry held up his hand and gave her a facial expression as if to say “Not here, not yet.” She bit her lip and looked around in the large elevator, but it was occupied by them alone. She nodded and waited for the lift doors to open.

Once they had exited the lift and began to walk down the opulent hallway, Henry turned to Belinda. “Please forgive me, … I didn’t mean to be rude, but all the lifts in this place are wired for live video, and I don’t want the security staff monitoring the helm to catch a whiff of why we’re here. At least, not yet. And by the way, it’s very nice to see you again! I understand from the Doc that you’ve been extremely busy on our behalf.” Belinda beamed. “Why, thank you, Henry. Yes, it’s been very interesting, to say the least. I was getting a bit frustrated by the lack of any anomalies jumping out at me, but sad to say, your call may provide us with some fresh clues, don’t you think?” As they came up to Penthouse Number 8 near the end of the hallway, one of Henry’s department officers was standing by the door, awaiting their arrival. “Thanks, Mert… can you stay put while we have a look around here?” Mert silently nodded and slid the card key through the lock, which gave a hushed click to indicate the door was unlocked. Before he opened the door, Henry looked at Belinda and Doc. “This is a fresh crime scene, as you know, so do me a favor and be sure to give everything a good hard look. Doc, your boys haven’t even been here yet, so you know the drill.” With that, Henry slowly opened the door and the three of them entered the room.

The Penthouse Suites at the Resort d’Beuleaux were designed to elicit a feeling of drama and opulence for their high-rolling guests who opted to pony up the $1,000 per night to stay in these luxurious surroundings, and thus when the three of them entered the foyer they were swallowed up in a jungle of velour curtains, gilt mirrors, tassels, floral arrangements and all the trappings that are considered ‘de rigueur’ for the cost. Henry ushered them across the expansive marble-floored sitting area where the IRPD investigation team was already situated, surrounded by boxes and equipment and cameras, preparing for their task… the whole scene displayed a hushed intensity that Belinda and Doc were familiar with, but left Henry feeling somewhat uneasy and exposed to a loose-lipped tech who might spill his or her guts about what was going on.

Their footsteps were muffled by the thick tapestry rugs covering the floors as they traversed an endless hallway, crossed through a set of beautiful white French doors and entered the Master Suite after being appraised by another IRPD officer standing just outside. An explosion of expensive tapestries, furniture and mirrors, the room was dominated by a huge four-poster bed located in the center that faced the floor-to-ceiling windows looking over the shores of Lake Ponchartrain. The investigation team had already taken a number of crime scene photos and exited the room on Henry’s request… the quiet stillness of the room was heightened by the sight of two nude men lying on the bed, tangled in the sheets and obviously dead. Judging by the look on Belinda’s face, it was apparent to Henry that she had not expected the scene to include two men. Doc merely seemed impassive and silent, perhaps out of respect for the deceased.

For the next several minutes, Doc and Belinda performed a cursory inspection of the two bodies, being careful not to move them too much, all without saying a word between them. Henry stood by the wall of glass, watching the two professionals at work, craving a smoke but knowing that this was not the time or the place. After about five minutes, Doc and Belinda stood up straight, looked at each other across the bed and walked over to where Henry stood. Again, nothing was said for almost a minute when Henry finally broke the silence. ‘Sooooo… any initial thoughts about what we see here?” Belinda spoke first. “Henry, it’s pretty obvious that we have another example of the same type of COD that befell the previous four pairs, and yet… this one seems a bit off for some reason, and it’s NOT because we have, eh… shall we say a same–sex couple.” She grinned expansively to show Doc and Henry that although the situation was serious, she was unruffled and ready to work.

Doc spoke next. “I agree, Henry. They too seemed to have expired ‘en flagrante delicto’, as it were. However, these two have obviously been entertaining each other in this room for some time, and there is evidence that suggest they have been having quite a bit of sex, unlike our other victims who all seemed to be involved in what might be referred to as ‘quickies’… I believe that’s how you youngsters say it, right?” Henry smiled and looked at Belinda, who was already grinning at Doc’s appraisal. Doc walked over to the bed and continued, “There’s evidence of oral and anal intercourse, multiple times if my eyes don’t deceive me, and judging by the number of condom wrappers in the bed and on the nightstands, these fellas were quite active and energetic.” Doc pointed out silk scarves and surgical tubing tied to the headboard and bedposts, and began to count the condom wrappers, ‘One, two, three, four…’ and finally looked up at Henry and Belinda to announce “Nine! Damn! Henry, how were these two discovered? This place has enough sound-absorbing surfaces to allow a rock band to practice without the neighbors hearing a thing.”

“Apparently housekeeping knocked on the door to make up the room and came in when no one answered, finding our friends here”, Henry said, making slow laps around the gigantic master bed. “Once again, the toxicology results will tell us more, but I am not optimistic about finding out anything that we haven’t already seen with the others. I just cannot believe that this has happened again and we don’t seem to be any closer than we were last week!” Henry fell onto an overstuffed divan behind the bed in obvious frustration, taking his hat off and rubbing his eyes, which were red and watery from many sleepless nights. He knew his job was at risk and was feeling the pressure in ways he had never experienced. Belinda walked over and sat down with him, giving him a good-natured slug on the leg. “Henry”, she said, “this is all going to make some sense, and unfortunate as their deaths may be, this fresh scene will allow Doc and I to take as much time as is necessary to figure out why this case is different. I feel confident that we will find something… we won’t let you down.”

Henry shrugged and smiled. “Thanks, B… I appreciate your tenacity. If anyone’s gonna’ see this for what it is, it’ll be you and Doc. I guess this is all way out of my league and I don’t have the answers. I’m not used to being stumped, and I don’t want there to be a first time.” They both got up and walked over to Doc, who was gazing at the bed from the window wall with an expression of determination and a set jaw. “OK”, he said, “let’s start at the beginning and miss nothing and see what we can find that sets this apart. I feel like we are in the presence of a missing puzzle piece… don’t ask me why.” With that, Henry summoned the investigation team back into the room, and the assembled group set out to do what they knew best.

Beeeeeep…“Henry, Doc and I have some questions we’d like to go over with you. If it’s not too much trouble, can you swing by the manor this evening so we can talk? Thanks… sorry I missed you. Bye!” Beeeeeep.

Henry had just finished washing his car and had found Belinda’s message on his answering machine when he came in for a beer. “Dammit’, he said to himself, “I guess I need to get me a cell phone.” He took a quick shower and threw on some old jeans, a pair of Top Siders and his favorite NASCAR sweatshirt, grabbed a Steely Dan CD and headed off to Doc’s place. Although the evening had turned chilly, he loved driving his T-Bird with the top down and the heater on, so the drive to Metairie was pleasant enough, especially listening to one of his favorite bands. One thing puzzled him, though: why had Belinda asked him to come over, rather than just call her back? Had they found out something that required his immediate assistance? Hell, they had just left each other a few hours earlier, having spent a second full day at the Doc’s laboratory in the Coroner’s office, evaluating evidence, looking at blood samples, comparing fluid specimens. It gave Henry the willies, all that bodily fluid stuff. “Yuk”, he thought to himself.

When he arrived at the Etoufee’ home, he found Belinda sitting on the front veranda, sipping iced tea with her feet up and her hair down, looking for all the world like a lady to the manor born. They had developed a real friendship over the last few weeks, and even though it was void of any sexual tension, Henry found himself looking forward to seeing her on such a regular basis. Sure, she was extremely attractive and intelligent, but she had an appreciation for fast cars, rock n’ roll, modern art and possessed a satirical sense of humor that had caught Henry quite by surprise. Regardless of when this investigation was all over and done with, he’d found a true friend and a worthy contemporary in this tall ebony woman. If she felt the same way, she was being coy about it, but he felt comfortable enough with their relationship that when she rose from the porch swing to greet him, they embraced and grinned like a couple of teenagers who had just successfully toilet-papered the teacher’s house.

“Thanks for buzzing out here on short notice, MR. Lofy. I hope I didn’t catch you in… the middle of something.” She flashed a wicked smile that inferred Henry might have been entertaining when she had called earlier, which immediately caused him to be embarrassed and get completely red-faced. ‘No no no, quite alright, B… the women I entertain all understand that my work always comes first, so to speak.” They both looked at each other, wide-eyed, then broke down in raucous laughter at Henry’s pun. Doc came out onto the porch with Lila on his arm, mock scowling at the two who were teary-eyed from laughing. “I think I’ve created an unholy alliance among these two, Lila”, he told his wife, who ‘pooh-poohd’ him in a joshing fashion. They sat down across from Belinda and Henry, sipped from their glasses of wine, and all four were quiet for a few minutes, taking in the rustling of the cool evening breeze through the treetops and the sounds of kids playing somewhere off in the distance.

Belinda spoke up after a bit. “Henry, we have some bad news, but we have some good news as well, and wanted to talk about this with you in person to see your reaction. That will help us to see if we’re just crazy, or maybe on to something.” They all looked at each other in a conspiratorial fashion, and Henry said “OK, let’s hear it. I’m open to anything.” Belinda got up from her chair and walked the length of the veranda, came back and stood in front of Henry. “Well, the bad news is this: based upon the evidence we have evaluated so far, there’s nothing unusual regarding the ‘Beauleaux Boys’ in comparison to the other victims. No trauma, poison or other obvious COD, so in effect, we have an identical situation to the others. Like I said, that’s the bad news.” Henry looked at Doc, who was nuzzling lightly on Lila’s neck, then back at Belinda and said “OK, so that’s not such a surprise. Now give me the good news.”

Belinda smiled, sat down and looked at Doc, who was still nuzzling his beloved. Henry looked at Belinda looking at the nuzzlers, then looked at them with a questioning face when Doc stopped nuzzling his wife and said, “Now, this is something Belinda and I have been talking about since shortly after we arrived back here this evening, and we think we have an idea about where to look for our answer… a long shot for sure, but it has merit. Actually, it was Lila’s idea… she came up with the thought while we were all shelling peas for dinner. Isn’t that right, Lila?” They all looked at Lila, who threw them a Mona Lisa smirk and said ‘Go ahead, Bernard… you’re doing just fine.”

Doc continued, “Well, as you’ll agree, all of the deceased got that way without any physical or toxicological reason that we can find, right?” Henry nodded his head in agreement. “And furthermore, the similarities in each case – all died during sexual intercourse, all died in local hotels, all except the Beuleaux Boys were enjoying one-night stands – all seem to be happenstance, correct?” Henry was still showing that quizzical look, so the Doc continued, “Another similarity was that each of the couples was practicing safe sex by using condoms, which were all tested for residue of toxins, yet nothing out of the ordinary was noted. What we did find extremely interesting was that all five couples were using the same brand of condoms – that is made by the same company, although there was some differences in the… er, style of prophylactics being used.”

Henry was still confused, so Belinda carried on, “Now remember, we have checked out each victim for toxins, and have even checked the condoms for toxins, but so far – nothing! Seems like a dead end… oops, sorry – wrong term to use – unless you change the way you look at the evidence, and Ms. Lila gave us an inspiration, right?” She looked at Lila, who stood up and said, “That’s right, my dear. Things change when you least expect it, and sometimes the answers are right in front of you and you never even know it. While these two (indicating Doc and Belinda) were helping me shell peas and were talking about the similarities in these poor souls’ demise, they had mentioned that the only real one-hundred percent similarity in each case was that they were all using condoms made by the same company. Please forgive me, but I kept thinking about that while I was preparing a roux for dinner this evening and was cooking up some flour… while stirring the mixture slowly over heat, it stayed white until just the right temperature was reached, when suddenly, the ingredients instantly changed color to a lovely brown. All it took was a little heat to make it happen, but without the heat and the right amount of time, the mixture and ingredients stay white.”

Doc jumped in, “Now stay with me, Henry. We already know that each couple was using condoms made by the same company, and that they’re non-toxic – we know the company makes a great product that saves lives, prevents babies and what not. Never had to use one, naturally… Lila! Stop laughing like that! I’m trying to make a point here… OK, so Lila is mixing up the roux, sees the color change take place under heating, then says ‘Bernard, if all those folks were using the same condoms when they expired, what if something in the condoms changes when they get heated up, like in this roux?’, and I say ‘What do you mean heated up’ and she says ‘you know… HEATED UP’. And then it hits me. What if the condoms have an ingredient in the latex mixture that changes under heat and becomes toxic, yet stays inert when at room temperature? An ingredient that passes muster when the condoms are being manufactured and tested, yet doesn’t kick in until the condoms are being… well, utilized. An ingredient that appears to be normal for an organic, yet changes and becomes toxic when heated up by body heat and friction, like when two people are having sex!”

Henry’s head began to hurt. A heat-induced toxin that killed people who were wearing condoms during sex? How could something like that pass a chemical analysis at the factory? Could a manufacturer know they were making a potentially deadly product? Was it done on purpose? If it was possible, how many others had died using the same product? Why wasn’t it all over the news? Was the CDC hiding something for fear of creating mass ‘safe sex’ hysteria? The questions came rushing into his head at 150 miles-per-hour, and it showed on his face. Belinda and Doc saw that Henry was cogitating at a rapid pace, and they looked at each other and knew that they may just have the one lead that would go somewhere… Henry’s law-enforcement background and analytical nature helped him to organize his thoughts, and they could see it happening right in front of them. Getting Henry out here to run the idea by him to see his reaction to such a hare-brained concept paid off, and they knew it.

After contemplating for a bit, Henry had only one question. “Tell me, Belinda… the Beuleaux Boys had nine empty condom wrappers in their room, which means they were wearing several sets each during their interlude. Why didn’t they die after the first one?” Belinda smiled knowingly. “Henry, my dear, it’s true that there were nine condom wrappers – but only one was the same type as the other victims had used. In all likelihood, the Boys had been having a vigorous workout with eight safe ones, but it was the last one that killed them, and that’s the one we found on his member!” Henry grinned like he just won the lottery and said “Well then, what say we take a drive back into town tonight and play with Doc’s chemistry set?”

In the jungles of Honduras, just West of the capital city of Tegucigalpa, a small but thriving rubber plantation is scratching out a place in the country’s destitute economy. Built by a local named Beto Quijas who grew up to make a small fortune in the Mexican tire industry, he returned to his Honduran home to start a business growing and harvesting the small but sturdy ‘vancha’ trees, known to produce a silky and pure natural latex that is sought after throughout the world for numerous medical purposes. Beto was wise with his money, only clearing enough of the jungle to let his new young trees prosper, never destroying the jungle surrounding his plantation land just because he could. He hired local men and women, paid them well and even paid for their healthcare, an unknown luxury in his country to everyone except to warlords, narcotraficantes and foreigners. His years in the tire industry taught him how to communicate, negotiate in a brutal-yet-fair manner, and always to speak the truth, unlike most of his ‘llantera’ competitors. It was his connections in the tire business that taught him about the medical-grade latex market, and he knew he could make it work for himself and his growing family.

The work was hard and the hours long, but Beto’s employees loved him for treating them so well. They were in the groves before sunrise, tapping the vancha trees with deft strokes of their machetes and watching as the beautiful white gold oozed from the tree trunks like syrup. Each tree could be tapped once a week, and each tapping yielded almost 3 gallons of pure vancha latex, which could be sold on the world commodities market for almost $500 a gallon. His plantation had over 2,000 adult trees and another 2000 saplings in various stages of maturity, which meant that his small plantation could yield almost 6,000 gallons of latex per full tap at a market value of over $3 million dollars. His plantation could see each tree tapped at least five times per year, so he was making an unbelievable amount of money that allowed him to become wealthy, a patron to his country and a hero to his workers, who were all inspired by his story. If Beto could do it, they could too.

Unbeknownst to Beto, the narcotraficantes South of his plantation were using toxic chemicals to produce a high grade of coca paste that was also much sought after in the US, and the pools of chemicals that were used to leech the drug from the coca leaves were being dumped all over the countryside, with a disastrous environmental impact that wouldn’t be acknowledged by the corrupt Honduran government for years. The chemical runoff was killing the jungle foliage, forcing the animals that lived in the decimated jungles to escape to other areas that had not yet been damaged by the coca cookers. One of those migrants was a tiny black tree frog that displayed a bright green spot on its back that the locals called a ‘cuchillo’ or knife, because it had a terrible secret on its miniscule body. The cuchillo weighed less than ½ an ounce.

Although small, the green patch on its back showed the world that it was extremely dangerous, and any animal that wanted to have it for a snack would swallow it whole and be immediately sorry, for the cuchillo was covered with a foul-tasting excretion that would cause the eater to expel the tiny frog before it could be digested. Most of the time, animals would learn not to try and eat the tiny morsel, but animals that hadn’t learned yet would gobble down and swallow it, not knowing that once the frog’s body excretion reached a temperature of 110 degrees F, the excretion became a powerful neurotoxin that would short-circuit the eater’s central nervous system and kill within 60 seconds, allowing the cuchillo to crawl out of the dead animal’s stomach and head back into the jungle. Once the temperature fell below 110 degrees, the excretion was just a foul-tasting slime that wouldn’t harm… a frog.

The toxic spills had forced the cuchillo and many other animal species to migrate to safer areas, and although they had lived only in the small, isolated section of Honduras for a millennia, the tiny frog population migrated to the only place they could – downhill towards the North and directly into the groves of Beto’s vancha trees, where they found a new home. They were safe, the thinned out jungle was actually better for them and they thrived. Normally, when a cuchillo grew too old to remain hiding in the jungle canopy, they returned to the ground to die, decompose and help in their small way to rejuvenate the jungle loam. In their new habitat, they simply expired where they hid in the trees; occasionally a dead cuchillo would drop into one of the tapping buckets and become infused with the thick, gooey latex base. The tiny cuchillo became one with the latex, and processing rendered away any hint that the little frog was now another inert component of the natural latex. The processed latex was sold and shipped to points all over the world and used for every imaginable use – medical tubing, artificial heart valves, surgical tubing and gloves, clean room hermetic seals… and condoms.

As it happened, a tapper was making his rounds of the vancha grove he had prepared earlier in the week and was going from tree to tree, collecting the now-filled buckets, when he heard a faint noise from a bucket quite close to the tree he was working on. He swabbed the tree he was at with the sealer that closed the machete cut and ambled over to where he had heard the noise, looked into the bucket and saw the tiny shriveled body of a cuchillo slowly sink into the goo. He put down his gear, walked over to his supervisor and told her about what he had just seen, and she immediately contacted the grove manager. Less than two days later, a simple screen mesh was attached to the top of each tapping bucket, a simple and inexpensive way to ensure that no animal remains could fall into the latex. This was the first time anyone had ever seen an animal fall into a tapping bucket, so when Beto found out about the swift action his managers had taken to handle this minor quality control issue, he gave his entire staff of tappers and managers a four-day weekend off, starting with a catered luncheon of fresh tamales, empanadas, ceviche and icy Corona beer to show his gratitude for their alertness. Their commitment to him was what helped him to be a success, and he took great pleasure in thanking them.

The idea of a condom becoming a lethal device during sex was almost too crazy to be taken seriously, but after some simple lab tests, Lila Etoufee’s curious connection between her roux and the tainted condoms was proven to be the key to the mystery surrounding the deaths that had plagued Indian River. As it turned out, the CDC had in fact received reports about dozens of other similar unusual deaths from the Southeast portion of the country, but the analysis hadn’t yet reached the stage of concern to post an alert and get caseworkers out into the field. A national recall of the condoms was enacted, but analysis proved that only a very small number of the latex products were found to have the unusual toxin.

Word of the ‘killer condoms’ eventually got out, and although it was expected that numerous lawsuits would be filed against the condom manufacturer, only a few were deemed to have any merit, and most of the families of the victims opted not to sue, since their loved ones were, for the most part, engaged in extra-marital affairs that lead them to their ultimate demise, and the families wanted no part of the media circus that had now enveloped the ‘killer condom’ story. It was a major media story for weeks; senators proselytized on abstinence and safe sex, the religious community clucked their tongues, and lovers around the country took stock of their good fortune and kept on having affairs, making love and being responsible adults.

An investigation into the tainted latex was launched, and although the blame was ultimately placed on the raw product harvested from Beto’s vancha grove, his staff’s quick assessment of the problem and their immediate response vindicated him from any claims of wrongdoing, even though they had no idea of the dangerous nature of the tiny cuchillo, which was not native to the region where Beto’s vancha groves were located. Beto received praise from the medical community for his responsible business practices, and he saw his customer base expand, necessitating more vancha groves and managers and workers to harvest the white gold. Beto bought a new house for the tapper that first reported the dropping frog, knowing that had it gone unreported, the outcome of the CDC investigation could have cost him his livelihood. Beto became a hero in his country, and his business grew and grew.

For their part in uncovering the ‘killer condoms’, Belinda Pomeroy, Doc Etoufee’ and a very skittish Henry Lofy became instantly famous, receiving offers to be interviewed on news shows, TV talk shows, speaking engagements, and all sorts of publicity events. Doc was awarded with an honorary PHD from Harvard, and although he had received many offers of bigger and better jobs and posts, would eventually decide to spend the remainder of his career in his beloved New Orleans office, much to the relief of his colleagues. Belinda was appointed to a Director’s post at the CDC, where she became an advocate for a more responsive infectious disease program, drafting young and aggressive medical techs from all over the country that wanted to make a real difference. Her programs would become SOP at the state level, and there would be talk of her as a nominee for Surgeon General.

For his part, Henry let the accolades come his way, but he slipped into the shadows only a few weeks later, staking claim to the anonymity he reveled in. Like the others, he received offers for jobs with police departments all over the country, but he politely turned them down and asked the Indian River local government to count on him staying on board, which they accepted with relief and gratitude. He also accepted a substantial salary increase, saw his job description change to include a seat on the Board of Supervisors, and watched his departmental budget increase as well. Henry had done a great job, made the right calls all along, and stuck his neck out when it was necessary. All because a few tiny frogs decided to move to a new address.

It had been several weeks since he had spoken with Belinda Pomeroy. With the whole episode now months old and the media attention now given to a scandal involving a former president and his ‘press secretary’, the spotlight was gone and Henry was happier for it. Henry had also found out some facts about Belinda that were surprising, to say the least… that her and Doc had enjoyed a brief affair a number of years before (and that he had been forgiven by Lila, who wound up becoming very close to Belinda in spite of it all); that Belinda was a committed bachelorette who traveled the world and had suitors in many different countries; that Belinda now considered Henry one of her closest friends and confidants because he was the first truly fascinating man she knew that did not try to bed her immediately. All of these things just made him care for her even more, because it showed that, like him, she was human and needed loving friendship like anyone else. He could live with that!

Just after the holidays, on a slow Sunday evening, Henry was lying flat on his back in his remodeled garage, sliding around on a creeper underneath his T-bird performing his ritual oil change, chassis lube and visual inspection. His car was pretty old, and he relied on it as his main transportation, so he made sure to keep after it. He had just squirted the last bit of lube into a zurk fitting when he heard the side door open and close, and watched an obviously female pair of shoes walk slowly around the car. The shoes were open-toed sandals, strapped around the ankles (and lovely ones they were, too) with small multi-colored beads interlaced among the straps. Her toenails were painted a deep shade of bronze, set off against the mocha color of the feet and ankles wearing the sandals, and came to a stop where his feet stuck out from underneath the ‘Bird.

“Nice car”, the woman spoke, “ a ’66 right?” Without sliding out from underneath the car, Henry said “Excellent call, Miss. Are you a Ford fan?” “Yes, but only the older models, you know? The ones that have some character… new cars just don’t have any soul.” Now Henry was getting intrigued, but he wanted to stay ahead of the curve, so he clanked his grease gun a bit on the car’s frame, pretending to be working. “What can I do for you this evening? Anyone in trouble and need a cop?” She walked around the car once more and said “No, but I was told that a Mr. Henry Lofy would most likely be working on his pride and joy this evening, so I wanted to see for myself.” That did it. Henry slid out from under the car, stood up, and saw standing on the other side of the car a woman about 30 years old, 5ft even, with a lovely figure, short cropped dark red hair and a vaguely familiar, yet stunning, face and smile. She was wearing a black calf-length pencil skirt, a bronze twin set sweater that showed off her delicious figure to the max, and was carrying an oversized Armani bag. He must have really looked her over, because she smiled like the sun and looked down a bit sheepish and embarrassed.

“Wups, sorry… I mean, I didn’t mean to give you the hairy eyeball, but, well, I didn’t expect to find such a knockout of a woman standing in my garage this evening!” He quickly wiped his hands off and walked over to her side of the car and extended his hand. “I’m Henry Lofy, and whoever you are, I’m VERY pleased to meet you.” She shook his hand, but didn’t introduce herself. “So I understand that you are a bit of a car, nut. That so?” He was surprised that she didn’t tell him her name, but he wasn’t about to get cowed by her. “Yup, I can say that I love these old cars, but they aren’t central to my life, if you know what I mean.” She raised an eyebrow and said “Yes, I think I do. I also understand that you are a music enthusiast and devotee’ of modern art.” He was taken off guard by that comment; she obviously knew who he was and knew more about him than he knew of her. He was suspicious, but not the least bit wary. In fact, he found this whole episode very interesting.

“OK, now it’s obvious that you know all about me, although I must confess that I haven’t a clue who you are. I am most interested to find out, so may I ask who exactly I am speaking with on this lovely Sunday evening in my garage?” She smiled broadly again, walked up and extended her hand… a hand that was attached to a very lovely arm. “ I’m Roxanne Pomeroy, Mr. Lofy… I hope you don’t mind me barging in, but my sister said that you were a most agreeable sort that didn’t get flustered too easily. Sorry if I seemed a bit mysterious, but in my line of work, I tend to keep people at arms length for a bit until I can get a read on them. Being a police officer, I’m sure you understand.”

Henry’s mind was racing… beautiful smile – check. Familiar face – check. Knows that I’m a cop – check. Last name Pomeroy – OMIGOSH! “Why, you must be Belinda’s sister” he stammered, smiling and shaking her hand and oh so glad to be alive. “She mentioned you on occasion, but I had no idea that… I mean I never dreamed that… I mean…” Roxanne threw her head back and laughed a hearty laugh that brought a smile to Henry’s face. “I thought it would be a surprise for you to have me show up unannounced. My work brought me to New Orleans this week, and Belinda spoke so highly of you that I felt it was my duty to come by and meet the man in person. You ARE famous, you know!” Now Henry was really feeling the blood rush to his face and felt his cheeks burning. “Stop, please, you’re just saying that”, he said in a mock coy tone. “But seriously, I had no idea that Belinda’s sister was such a gorgeous woman, although it shouldn’t be a surprise to me… she’s a knockout too! Ooops, hope that wasn’t crude of me to say that. Damn!” Henry laughed at himself and found Roxanne looking at him in a way that he found both warm and enticing. “Do you have some time to sit and chat, or are you busy? I can always come back”, she said. “NO NO NO… don’t leave, I mean, I’m just finishing up, but I’m sorta grimy right now. If you give me a few minutes to shower and get presentable, I’d love to crack a bottle of wine and get to know B’s sister. Man, I’m glad I cleaned house this afternoon!” Roxanne raised her eyebrow again. “Handsome, fixes cars, is polite AND cleans house? Belinda was right… you are something special. Sure, I’d be happy to hang around.”

A few hours later, Henry and Roxy were cruising in the T-Bird, top down and heater on, headed into downtown New Orleans for some Jambalaya, sourdough bread and pumpkin pie. Roxy was an international finance broker in town for a few weeks, and although she didn’t say so, had been hearing all about Henry from her older sister for months now. She’d been traveling all over the world, was an independent woman who wasn’t ready to start a family, but hadn’t yet met a man that wasn’t threatened by her style and strength. Belinda had told Roxy that had she been less inclined to resist a relationship and was a dozen years younger, she’d have jumped Henry Lofy’s bones right after they’d first met. As it was, Belinda had found a lifelong friend in Henry, and she was grateful to have crossed his path and have him in her life. Of course, she also knew that he would be a perfect match for Roxy, had been feeding her info for months, and had set Henry up without his even knowing it, all leading up to this night.

The T-Bird’s big block rumbled and the evening chill snapped at their heads as they cruised 70 mph down the causeway into town. The lights of the city ahead in the distance, the sounds of Brubeck’s ‘Take Five’ on the stereo, the beautiful Roxanne sitting in the passenger seat, air drumming to the extended drum solo… it was almost too much to bear. “Tell me, Roxy”, Henry said, “do you believe in fate?” Roxy smiled, leaned over and kissed Henry lightly on the cheek and said “Well, I don’t know about fate, but I know what I like, and somehow I like where I am right here, right now. I hope that’s OK with you?”

Henry grinned widely, stomped the accelerator and felt the tires grab the pavement and rocket them forward, towards a night filled with the promise of food and talk and expectations of… whatever. He felt a warm glow inside, felt blessed to be alive, and sent a silent thanks to Belinda, whose smile he saw in Roxy’s face every time she threw her head back to laugh. As they drove into the city center, across the levee and down into the French Quarter, the stars seemed to vibrate with energy and the jungles of Honduras were a million miles away.

“I’m hiding in Honduras… I’m a desperate man;
Send lawyers guns and money… the shit has hit the fan!”

From “Lawyers, Guns and Money” by Warren Zevon

Sexy hotel room image, muchismas gracias de Motels 'Only The Lonely' video muchismas gracias de

Thursday, October 13, 2011

How To Stuff A Wild Taco

Probably the number one Mexican food item that people are familiar with is the taco (tah-co), but as with everything else, one man’s taco is another man’s burrito, or something like that. There are a multitude of taco recipes floating around using either corn or (shudder) flour tortillas, different cooking methods and an equal number of ways to stuff a wild taco.

For many folks, the only taco they know about is the fast-food type sold at Taco Bell or many other joints that hawk pseudo-Mexican food. Those of us lucky enough to live in the Southwest have access to countless small taquerias that sell a traditional style of street taco which features two small corn tortillas filled with meat, salsa and cilantro. Add a couple of slices of fresh radish and a spritz of lime and you are, as they say in the East San Gabriel Valley, ‘having things’.

For this recipe, I’ll focus on the traditional Tex-Mex taco I grew up with, the same style made famous at Manny’s Chile Bowl (now sadly closed) in Paradise, California: corn tortillas, quick deep-fried and then stuffed with tasty ground beef and veggies. The choice to go ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ totally depends on your personal preference, but these ‘soft’ tacos are WAY BETTER than the ones you get at The Crazy Chicken or places like that, where they use steamed corn tortillas and IT JUST AIN’T THE SAME!!!! My choice is always for ‘soft’ tacos, done a la Manny’s.

Short stack of cloth kitchen towels (NOT the good ones!), deep fryer, medium size frying pan with lid, various wood spoons, cooking tongs, paper towels, a Dos Equis and thee. If you don't have a deep fryer, BUY ONE... they're really inexpensive and you can then make tortilla chips or funnel cakes with it too! See the end of this recipe for my recommendation (hint: Presto Fry Daddy).

One (1) dozen fresh (packaged, non-frozen) corn tortillas, ½-lb. Cheddar or Longhorn cheese, vegetable oil, choice of meat (chicken, beef, pork, catfish, wolverine, whatever), lettuce, tomatoes, one (1) can sliced olives, one (1) medium size potato, taco sauce or salsa, fresh avocados if you have them. Note: you can use frozen corn tortillas, which I regularly do. Just pry them apart gently and lay them on a towel on the counter for about 10 minutes, turning them over every so often until they are soft and dry to the touch. They might curl up a bit, but no worries unless they crack and split apart, usually a sign they’ve been in the deep freeze a bit too long. Just make sure they are completely thawed before you drop them in the deep fryer!

My kitchen is laid out with a stovetop on my left and sink on my right, with a counter top in between. As I am right-handed, I work from left to right with the cooking and assembly, laying out the utensils with my assembly strategy in mind. I also like to cover the counter area with cloth towels to lessen any spillage mess. Hey, we’re cooking, right?

1. Cook your meat, heh heh heh. Now, this can be as simple or complicated as you wish, but for this recipe I’ll go with ground sirloin, browned in a pan and drained. Once returned to the pan, season to taste, shred half of the potato directly into the meat, fold in and simmer over semi-low heat for around 30 minutes, turning every 5 minutes or so until the potatoes have cooked properly (if you're in a time pinch, leave out the shredded potato). Then drop in a can of sliced olives with the water, season to taste again and continue to simmer while you take a swig o’ cerveza and prepare the other ingredients.

2. Grate the cheese, chop the lettuce (julienne-style) and tomatoes and stash in the fridge.

3. Set up the deep fryer on a covered surface and pour in about 1-inch of vegetable oil. Plug in and heat the oil until a small bit of tortilla dropped in will begin to sizzle and cook immediately.

4. Fold two (2) paper towels bi-fold, then fold two more – these will be used to pat-off any excess oil from the cooked tortillas.

5. Confirm your meat is completely cooked and the potatoes are the right consistency. You’ll note the ‘taters are slightly dry, and that is exactly what we want – NO DRIPPY CACA TACOS!!!

6. Set up the taco makin’ station with your cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, hot sauce and spices.

7. Raise your beer in celebration of the most-excellent tacos you are about to create!

(Taco-making sountrack... trust me.)

1. Using the cooking tongs, immerse one corn tortilla into the oil, allowing it to cook for 5 to 10 seconds, then flip it over and cook for another 5 to 10 seconds. Cooking time may vary depending on how soft or semi-soft you want the tortilla to be. Once done cooking, grab the tortilla and hold it over the fryer to drain off any excess oil. Use care if the tortilla begins to grow a pocket of hot air while cooking – gently poke a small slit in it with the tongs and it will flatten out, but watch out for the hot oil.

2. Place the cooked and drained tortilla onto the paper towel pad you’ve made, place the other paper towel pad on top and gently press down to soak up any excess oil. This is a very important step and will make or break your tacos. NO DRIPPY CACA TACOS!!!

3. Once patted dry, place the tortilla onto a plate and spoon on a heaping helping of taco meat, likely two spoonfuls or so. Make two more tacos just like this for a plate-full, then transfer the plate over to the makin’ station.

4. This part is TOTALLY FREE-FORM. Add the fixings any way you choose, but here’s my style, in order: shake of salt & pepper, a few drops of Pico Pica (my fave hot sauce), a few slices of avocados, lettuce, tomato, cheese, a bit more pepper and some more hot sauce. My wife likes to put some cheese directly onto the meat so it will melt, but that goes against everything I ever learned about making tacos. Or not… whatever. She IS smarter than me, so there’s that.

5. Repeat this process for each plate of tacos. If you have several people to feed for a sit-down meal, make each set of three tacos on a plate, then place them WITHOUT THE FIXINGS into a 200-degree oven to keep caliente until all the tacos are made and ready to be completed. Natch, be sure to use oven-safe plates! Make a few extras, put them on a plate, cover with a towel and stash in the oven for anyone (everyone?) who wants MORE TACOS.

6. Eat your tacos... drink your beer… make more tacos if needed! Oh yes… this will happen.

CHICKEN – this will take a little more advance planning than the ground sirloin. Bake a couple of chicken breasts ahead of time, skin off, dry-seasoned to taste. Once cooked, allow to cool for a bit, then shred the breasts with a fork and place in a small sauce pan over low heat. Simmer while adding your fave hot sauce and season to taste.

PORK – also referred to as carnitas (car-nee-tas), the variations for cooking are immense, but cook your pork roast (NOT CHOPS!!) to your liking, then shred or pull apart and simmer like the chicken method. Wait a minute... maybe pork chop tacos would RULE, so cook some up!

FISH – I don’t like fish tacos… I don’t cook fish tacos… never ate fish tacos when I was a kid… fish tacos are an abomination! That said, cook your White fish filet any way you like for the taco stuffing and don’t say I didn’t warn you (insert evil Vincent Price-style laugh here).

BREAKFAST – of course you can make breakfast tacos! If you’re like us, we can eat brekkie any time of the day or night. Eggs that are fried or scrambled are a natural taco stuffing, then slap some hash browns and cheese in there for good measure. The hard-core taco eaters out there may even want to whip up some huevos y papas con chorizo (scrambled eggs mixed with fried potatos and cooked Mexican chile sausage) and then stuff them in tortillas. ORALE’.

VEGGIE – a surprising taco stuffing that uses whole or refried pinto beans instead of meat can be very satisfying. You can also use seasoned fried potatoes or hash browns.

Hard taco shells are tricky to make without a wire deep-fry form, but it can be done. Dip the fresh tortilla into the deep fryer and while it’s cooking, grab one side of the tortilla with the tongs, fold over and hold just off the side that’s cooking. After a bit, turn the tortilla over so the other side is now cooking in the oil and hold the first side up… you’ll see what I mean. Keep doing this until the tortilla holds the desired U-shape and is slightly browned around the edges – this means the tortilla will hold its crispy shape. You could also buy those pre-formed shells from the store, but trust me: they sucko mucho.

Stove-top soft taco shells are really easy to make if you prefer them to the deep-fried style, and I like to vary between the two from time to time. The best way to make them is with a comal (ko-mal) or cast-iron tortilla griddle, which is essentially a raised flat frying griddle… you can also use a regular frying pan with a slick coating. Place the griddle on the stove-top at medium heat and let sit until a drop of water skitters across the surface. Place the tortilla on the griddle for about 10 seconds, turn over and let cook for another 10 seconds. Repeat this process until the tortilla reaches the color and ‘doneness’ you want, then stuff it.

Steamed soft taco shells are typical for fast-food joints and are not my favorite, but will do in a pinch. Take a short stack of corn tortillas, wrap them in a clean kitchen towel, sprinkle the towel with some water and microwave them 20 to 30 seconds, depending on your micro settings. They’ll be smokin’ hot when done, so be careful when removing them from the towel.

Flour tortillas were never meant to be used for taco making, but there are SOME PEOPLE who prefer them for reasons of their own (not me!). If your heart is set on making tacos with (shudder) flour tortillas, DO NOT DEEP-FRY THEM as they will turn crispy on contact with the oil and break as soon as you try to bend or fill them. My suggestion is to use the stove-top method on a comal or heated frying pan, cooking them until they begin to fill with hot air bubbles and start to brown.

Bizarre tangent – when I was a kid, I would take a flour tortilla and a slice of bologna, put each on a gas stove burner and cook them directly over the flame, turning them a few times until both were cooked/burned/charred, place the bologna on the tortilla, roll it up and hork it down. Always left a HUGE mess on the stove and made my Dad real mad… heh heh heh. Is this a taco or a burrito? Believe me when I tell you: the aroma of a slightly charred flour tortilla and bologna is simply awesome.

As with all of my recipes, don’t be discouraged if your first attempt to make tacos doesn’t meet expectations. It just takes a little practice to get the hang of making the meat and frying the tortillas. Having said that, I don’t recommend serving this dish to invited guests unless you’ve already made them a few times for good measure. I’m just sayin’.

I strongly suggest investing in a good deep-fryer like the Presto ‘Fry Daddy’, my weapon of choice. As I mentioned in the enchilada recipe from earlier this year, my first deep-fryer endured almost 15 years of regular use before it conked out, and the replacement cost all of $35 from Wal-Mart. A really good investment!

Be sure to avoid bargain-brand hot sauces or the really thick and chunky styles unless that’s your bag. As an adult, I simply cannot accept anything less than Pico Pica, something my Dad always had on hand and would put on everything he stuffed in his taco hole. I always thought it tasted awful, but time and temperament have changed my taste buds and it is now the only hot sauce I’ll use.

Sooo… I hope you’ll try out this recipe and let me know how it worked for you. The preparation… the cooking… the aromas filling your kitchen… the sounds of hungry wolverines scarfing down the tacos that YOU MADE, all fresh and healthy… it just doesn’t get any better. As the Dalai Lama said, “Approach love and cooking with reckless abandon.”

Taco Bone image, muchismas gracias de; War 'Nappy Head' video, muchismas gracias de YouTube.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Meaning Of Life

“There are some kind of men who are so busy worrying about the next life, they’ve never learned to live in this one.”
–Harper Lee, writer

When I start to think about my life, my existence, my waking consciousness, I get a little weak in the knees. That’s because my view of how all this came to be and what it means is based upon science and knowledge and reality, not religious dogma or superstition or spiritual voodoo. Of course, there are many people who would simply shake their heads and feel sorry for me because I haven’t ‘found God’, their be-all end-all answer to the great questions about The Meaning Of Life.

That being said, I totally understand why so many humans have made the decision to accept their religious teaching of choice, I really do. Life can be so complex, so venal, so cruel… sometimes only the gentle poetry of religious belief will salve a wounded soul, shredded and bleeding from the slings and arrows of daily life. I’ve always understood that our ancestors knew so little of the world they lived in, it was natural for them to create a spiritual context in which they could place themselves at the center, with everything else revolving around them. It’s the curse of being human, using that self-awareness to torture ourselves with.

Let me explain.

I’ve often shared my firmly-held belief that, as modern science (YAY!) has quantified, we humans and our Terran roomies live and die on an astral dust speck in the vastness of the Universe. Heck, it’s not even a dust speck… our Earth is an atom of a molecule of a dust speck that floats among the hundreds of billions of other dust specks that reside in the celestial ‘hood. Our puny little solar system, a galactic sweet spot that allows us to survive and plunder each other, is so spectacularly tiny as to be inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Are there millions, perhaps hundreds of millions of other molecular dust specks like ours where ‘life’ of some sort also thrives? Of course there are, but we’ll never have the chance to find out since we’ll probably kill each other off before then.

When I think about the amazing fortune that I/you/we have living here, sitting pretty with an oxygen-rich atmosphere, I am gobsmacked to realize how incredibly lucky we are to survive at all. The odds are against us, what with gamma rays and radiation and meteor missles and all the astral nasties that are out there, waiting to bring us to a fiery end. But no… here we are, having sex and shooting each other and poisoning that very life-giving atmosphere, seemingly oblivious to the oblivion that awaits us just outside that skinny little band o’ goodness we breathe. When I think of my existence within that context, I feel giddy and powerful and infinitesimal and obscure and terribly, terribly small.

And yet… we survive, by some weird and wonderful stroke of luck. It is invigorating to ponder how it worked out in our favor, and doing so makes me feel more alive, more grateful, more human than any dogma or doctrine could possibly provide. It makes me laugh out loud when those of the religious persuasion try and place themselves and their deity in the center of that vastness, as if their religious belief can somehow overcome and negate the powerful physical universe. Humans have used that same hubris for thousands of years, and yet they still persist, ignoring science and knowledge and wisdom, all in an effort to confirm their certainty. I say more power to them… but it is a fruitless, pointless task that only we humans waste our energy on. It’s that self-awareness thing again.

Think about our atmosphere… the life-giving, radiation-reflecting, moisture-bearing oxygen ocean that we live in every day of our conscious being. Using that most-excellent scientific method, it has been determined that the thickness of our atmosphere in relation to the size of Earth is the same as the thickness of the skin that covers an apple. Yep… THAT thin. So little is really known about how and why this skinny band of life stays glued to Earth’s surface, it’s a bit humbling to realize how tenuous our lives are, bathed in that apple skin-thin oxygen ocean, breathing in, breathing out.

And that’s just the start of it. The oceans of coalesced water molecules that cover our planet are made up of the same ones that existed at the very beginning of Earth’s transition from a ball of molten rock to a beautiful garden of habitation. Same for the resulting breathable atmosphere, recycled millions of millions (billions?) of times through the gills and lungs and mitochondria of myriad species. All the water and all the oxygen we’ve ever had is what we still have, reused, recycled, restored into the stew of life on which we all thrive. We ain’t getting any more from the black vacuum, that’s for sure. All we have is all we have.

Think about that for a moment. We breathe the same air as the dinosaurs did so very long ago. We sup from the same pool of water that a Brontosaurus peed in while grazing on swamp grass, somewhere on Pangea, perhaps in a vast wetland that we now know as Kansas. This isn’t supposition or theory. We KNOW the dinos existed, we KNOW where they lived, we KNOW what they et. Only those humans who deny an ancient Earth could muster an argument against these facts, and yet… some humans do. I am more than amused at recent attempts of high-viz religious folk who want to twist scientific history to fit their faith.

And so it goes… the chemical merry-go-round that supports our lives on this planet, all with little or no help from us humans, with the notable exception of our insatiable desire to pollute and deforest and deface and deplete. Maybe, just maybe, if more people considered our incredibly finite natural resources and apple skin-thin atmosphere, they’d think differently. But no, we humans don’t like to go there, because it allows our self-awareness to consider our own mortality, and we dinna like that not one bit, NO SIR, NO MA’AM.

For me, it’s different… WAY different. See, I have come to grips with my life, my pending and unavoidable death, and my place in the whole grand Circus Maximus we call civilization. In my world, devoid of religious fables or dogmatic belief, we each have only one life to live, our conscious life. We are borne by other humans, created via the tried-and-true method of sexual procreation, and we live this conscious life until our bodies are no longer able to regenerate skin and bone and infection-fighting white blood cells. When I die, and I surely WILL die, my conscious life ends and… well, that’s the end of my conscious life. There is no ‘afterlife’ to speak of, there is no heavenly paradise awaiting me or anyone else. I be dead and gone, and nothing can or will change that fact. Others might disagree, but they simply cannot prove what their belief systems tell them, because they have ‘faith’ that tells them what to believe. How human, how self-possessed, how self-aggrandizing that is.

However, in my world, the incredible energy that pumped my heart and powered my brain and allowed the wondrous capability for me to actually live… that energy will not be wasted, oh no. That energy, just like all the water and all the air… that energy will be recycled into the amazing ephemeral grid that powers our atmosphere, allowing it to cling to this small Blue Earth with a tenacious grip. My life’s force will be absorbed and reused in some other way that matters not a whit to me, because I’ll be DEAD, because my conscious life will have ended. Mixing with the filtered radiation and sunlight and oxygen and water molecules, that invisible ocean in which we live… that’s where my energy will survive and thrive. I dinna care if it’s used to sustain a human or a tree or a rabid wolverine or (shudder!) a Republican or a patch of kelp floating off the Cali coast. I couldn’t care less how my life’s energy force will be utilized, but I know it will be, and it will not leave this Earth.

We are surrounded and infused by the energy, the life force, the primal motivation of every living thing that has ever lived and died on this Earth. The unseen ocean of atmosphere is chock-full of goody, filling our lungs and eyes and ears and hearts, a steamy and fragrant cocktail that we all sip on, every second of our conscious lives. And when we finally take the dirt nap, we unwillingly donate our energy essence to those we leave behind, those not yet born, to drink deeply from our collective pool of chemical funk. Yum!

Does any of this make you uncomfortable? Have you ever given even the smallest amount of time thinking about this type of spectral philosophy? Does your religion of choice prevent and/or discourage musing on alternate views of birth and death?

I reckon my philosophy could be construed as being based on reincarnation or Buddhist teachings, but I don’t see it that way. This Earth, this planet, this massive object hurtling through space… it is a living thing, and it feeds off of the teeming bacterium of life that covers the land, fills the oceans and spews crap into the atmosphere. We live, we die, we live, we die, we live, we die… and our Terra is the best recycler there is, at least in this tiny corner of the galaxy. It takes all we can give it, and when we have finally dessicated the surface and used up the resources and destroyed the ozone… when the surface of our world can no longer support ‘human’ life (and we haven’t blown it to bits with our self-aware bullshit), it will regenerate another type of life that can and will survive in the crappy environs we’ve left behind.

I rather enjoy the idea of that. Of course, it won't matter to me, because my energy… OUR energy... will power whatever life forms that survive and thrive in the hellscape we self-aware humans created.

Soooo… The Meaning Of Life. I could be trite and say it’s ‘to love one another’ or something insipid like that. Nope, ain’t gonna do it, I want to be honest here. For me, TMOL is simply to live every moment, every second, every day with verve and vigor and purpose and conviction, because no matter what you might think or believe, we only get one shot at a conscious existence. Anything that happens before or after this conscious life is of no consequence, because none of it… NONE OF IT… can be proven or established as fact. Doesn’t matter how grand or banal your life and times may be, the important thing is to derive all the maximum mental, emotional and philosophical joy you can.

Do you dread having to go grocery shopping? Not me… I love to walk the aisles, picking and choosing the items that will make me a happy wolverine come mealtime. Talking with strangers who need help figuring out how to tell if a cantaloupe is ripe. Shagging a cart that some miscreant left in the middle of a handicapped parking space. Checking out the Hot Wheels display, looking for that vintage Corvette Stingray to add to my collection. It is ALL GOOD.

Hate cleaning the bathroom? OMFG… you need to read my last essay titled ‘You’re Soaking In It’ to know how much enjoyment can be had with a sponge and some Comet.

Unhappy with how your life has turned out, even though you've tried to fix it? THEN CHANGE IT. Holy crap, our time is so short on this planet. Change your job, find a new mate, tell your kids to suck off someone else's money teat for a change, move somehwere else... just DO IT. Do what you need to do to make yourself happy, even if it hurts, even if it is hard, even if it costs you everything you own.

"So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they're busy doing things they think are important. This is because they're chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning." -- from Mitch Albom’s ‘Tuesdays with Morrie'.

You get the picture.

Like the song says, “Love this life… don’t wait until the next one comes.” Breathe in deeply, walk in the rain, grab your honey’s butt just because you can, do a good deed daily. Make every second count, even the ones spent without reason or direction. Wake up in the morning and be glad a meteor didn’t take us all out overnight, that the atmosphere is still so clingy, that the coffee you make doesn’t taste like Stegosaurus pee (or does it?). Our waking and conscious lives are chock-full of amazing and wonderful things to eat/drink/taste/touch/feel/hear/smell… don’t waste a second of it being a typical self-aware humanoid. Be like the birds overhead, the descendants of those peeing dinosaurs, flying and spinning and chirping and jumping and living in the moment, living the life they live, without fear of the unknown. Because in the end, it is all unknown, all undeciphered, all uncontrollable. We are just Bozos on this celestial bus, squeaking each other’s noses as hard as we can.

"Life's journey is not to arrive safely at the grave in a well preserved body, but rather to skid in sideways, totally worn out, shouting ‘Holy Shit... What a ride!" – Mavis Leyrer

TMOL lead image Gracias de; Quicksilver Messenger Service 'Fresh Air' and Crowded House 'Love This Life' videos, Muchismas Gracias de YouTube.