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One Man's Meat

Detective Sergeant Rick Reall paused outside the closed door to Lieutenant Cochran's office. Rick straightened his collar, tucked in his shirt, took a deep breath, then tapped on the door's frosted-glass upper panel. The panel rattled, detached from its frame by years of such tapping.

"Enter, " came Cochran's gruff, gravely voice.

Rick opened the door, then leaned into the doorway. "You sent for me, Lieutenant?"

Cochran's red-rimmed, pig-like eyes fixed his young charge with a contemptuous and haughty stare. "Yeah, " growled the lieutenant, jowls flapping. "Git yer butt in here. I gotta job what's right up your alley."

Rick edged into the office, taking a chair at the front of the Lieutenant's desk.

"Did I tell yah to sit?" snapped Cochran before chomping a bite out of a half-eaten cheeseburger.

"Sorry, Sir, " replied Rick, returning to his feet.

Chewing contentedly, Lieutenant Cochran magnanimously gestured toward the chair Rick had just vacated. Rick again sat, his face a blank slate of unexpressed emotion, his brown eyes staring off to the right slightly, not meeting those of his superior. Cochran grunted while swallowing, then noisily slurped a soft drink, his own eyes never once wavering from Rick's face.

Cochran put down the drink. Leaning back in his plush swivel-chair, he crossed his arms, supporting them with an ample paunch. "So, Detective Reall -- you like vice duty?"

"It's all right."

Cochran laughed scornfully. "Yeah, I'll bet. Lotsa drugs, women, booze, filth; you're in hog heaven, ain't jah, Reall?" It was more a statement than a question. Rick made no reply.

Cochran lifted a frayed and begrimed manila folder, tossing it forward. The folder landed with a plop near the front edge of the desk. Papers slid out. Rick shuffled the papers back together before he picked up the folder.

"Ever been to the Blue Garden?" asked the Lieutenant, his voice oozing contempt.

Thumbing through papers in the folder, Rick replied, "Sure. "It's not the busiest strip club in town, but I suppose it has its attractions."

"That's right, " said Cochran. "An' for the record, as of this morning, we got on file three different anonymous tips alleging the Blue Garden has been puttin' on live Sex shows."

Rick raised his eyebrows. "Now why would they do that? They could lose their dance permit, maybe even their liquor license."

Cochran shrugged. "I don't get paid to understand slime, only ta bust 'em."

While Rick scanned briefing sheets, Cochran issued his orders: "Both the Chief and the D.A. are hot to trot on this case, so you're authorized anything you need. You're so new to the department; maybe nobody at the Blue Garden will recognize yer ugly mug. Case the joint; set up a raid; bring it on home. Think you can handle it?"

"Yes, Sir, " answered Rick, standing. "No problem."

Again, the Lieutenant fixed Rick with a haughty stare. "Don't blow this, Reall. If these tips are on the up-and-up, we need a conviction. Unnerstand?"

"Yes, Sir."

Rick backed out of the lieutenant's office, then quickly walked up the hallway. At his own desk he read through the file. Three anonymous reports clearly indicated the seriousness of the allegations. These were no reports of overly zealous lap dancers or of back booth trysts. All three reports gave graphic and compelling descriptions of full blown, live Sex acts performed on the Blue Garden's stage.

Rick pawed through the sheaf of other past reports, official reports on the club: fender benders in the parking lot, the occasional drunken fist fight, a few prostitution sweeps and sting operations typified past visits by the department. There was no indication of anything as serious as the current case. Rick grabbed his jacket off the back of the chair, signed out, then walked a couple blocks uptown to a Chinese restaurant where he often lunched. In a quiet little nook near the restaurant's restrooms a payphone booth gave Rick both privacy and security -- elements he found lacking with the station house phones or his own cell.

Rick punched in the telephone number of the Blue Garden. After several rings a matronly sounding voice responded with, "Blue Garden lounge."

Pressing a forefinger to one side of his nose gave Rick's own voice a nasal twang, to which he added a slight lilt. "Say, " he said, "I hear a rumor you all put on a mighty interesting show."

The response was an ominous quiet. Rick was about to try another question, but was brought short with, "Who's asking?"

"Just a fan of, uh, exotic dancing."

There came another pause before the voice announced, "Friday and Saturday nights. One-thirty a.m.. Double sawbuck cover charge. We close at two a.m.. Capeesh?"

"Yeah, " replied Rick. "Thanks."

The phone clicked quiet, then went to dial tone. #

Midnight Friday found Rick comfortably sprawled in a back booth at the Blue Garden. As cover and at department expense, he happily nursed a beer and gobbled an endless parade of bar snacks. A cheeseburger from the club's grill served as late supper.

Rick watched the club's stable of dancers go through their routines. Many, he recognized from the department's files. Drug use, physical abuse by boyfriends, casual or part-time hooking marked the lives of the girls he recognized. He carefully noted the features of those girls he couldn't place. Sooner or later, most would turn up in the department's blotter.

Rick's practiced eye and innate perceptiveness easily discerned the hardened, bored expressions and the listless grace of the girls as they went through their routines. The youngest of the girls put some effort into the show, but for the most part, Rick saw nothing that might provide a prelude to any alleged sex acts.

And the detective was not impressed by the club's small and dingy stage, upon which the girls trod unpainted, unwaxed boards, many of which creaked. Stained curtains provided a shabby backdrop; and instead of a professional sound system, music blared from a cheap boom-box, laxidaisely tended from behind the bar by one of the barkeeps.

Most noticeably, brass poles, popular in other clubs, were conspicuously absent from the Blue Garden.

But despite the drab surroundings and undistinguished presentation, the club was packed. Belying his youthfulness, Rick possessed the senses of an old time beat cop; he expertly assessed the club's clientele, most of which matched the club's well-worn dreariness. Middle-aged men and older predominated, probably holdovers from the club's better days. But there was also a sprinkling of younger men, and Rick did his best to judge their temperament. If there was to be some future raid, older men were likely to sit through it, making jokes and verbally harassing the officers. It was younger men who chose to flee or fight.

The hour grew late; the stage had been vacant for several minutes; soft background music sounded from the boom-box. A middle-aged woman, plump, garishly made up, circulated among the tables and booths, collecting the cover charge.

Her fist full of bills, the woman stopped at Rick's booth. "Stayin' for the show?" she asked. An unlit cigarette drooped precariously from one corner of her vulgarly painted mouth.

Rick smiled up at the woman. "Why not?" he replied while fishing a twenty dollar bill out of his wallet. "Got nothing better going on."

The woman sniffed derisively at Rick's comment, but she seemed happy enough with his money. "Picked a good night to take in the show, " she commented, tucking Rick's bill in with the others.

"Oh?"

"Yeah. Jim made a buncha changes. It's all new. I seen the rehearsal this mornin'." The woman sidled over to the next booth.

Rick had no idea who Jim was but made a mental note of the name as he focused his attention back to the stage. A mousy-looking man, shirttail pulled out and thinning hair combed over, wheeled a brass bed through the slit between two stage curtains. A sprinkling of applause and some catcalls greeted his efforts. The man smiled good-naturedly as he precisely positioned the bed to the center of the stage. He took some care in his work, squinting down toward the stage floor as he jiggled the bed back and forth.

Satisfied with his efforts, the man fished some long bolts from one pants pocket and a small ratchet wrench from the other. Kneeling in turn at each one of the four legs of the bed, he secured the bed to screw anchors set into the flooring.

After the work was completed, the man went to the head of the bed, grabbing firm hold of a couple of stout brass railings. He then shook the bed violently. The club's crowd laughed and clapped its approval of the auspicious gesture.

The man waved to the audience, then jumped offstage, disappearing through a door, stage left. Cued by the stagehand's departure, one of the barkeeps placed a new tape in the boom box. The theme song of a recent movie, a romantic comedy, blared from the boom box as the barkeep adjusted the volume and cranked down the houselights.

The music went on for a few minutes; the crowded club quieted. The barkeep paused the tape; in expectation, the audience's attention focused to the stage. Rick's interest was as keen as any as he stared at the slit between the stage curtains.

A bearded and bespectacled man stepped through the slit, out onto the stage, to be greeted with friendly applause. Past middle-age, broad-shouldered but paunchy, the man was dressed in boots, cargo-pants, tee-shirt, and a white, knee-length lab coat, which was unbuttoned.

The applause died out. "I've a special treat for tonight, " the man called out, his unamplified voice deep and forceful enough to carry across the club. "I figured it was time for some changes. I think you'll appreciate what I've done." The man smiled -- perhaps a bit condescendingly.

Rick focused on the man's lab coat. Though Rick's booth was all of about 60 to 70 feet from the stage, to the detective's sharp eye, the lab coat appeared smeared with streaks of blood.

"Maestro!" the man shouted as he waved flamboyantly to the barkeep manning the boom box, "A little music, if you please!" The bearded man retreated back through the slit between the curtains. The music resumed.

A few seconds passed; the curtains billowed outward; someone upstage was clumsily feeling for the opening. A young woman stepped through the slit, and at that instant the club filled with ecstatic applause and hollering. For the woman was none other than Roberta Jules, movie star and Hollywood celebrity of great popularity.

Rick could scarcely believe his eyes as Roberta slowly strolled downstage, into the full glare of the footlights. That it was her, there could be no doubt: The wide but shy smile and downcast eyes were practically a trademark.

But Rick's eyes did not linger long on those features. His interest was quickly drawn to the soft curves of the woman's alluring form, for her Capri pants could not have been any tighter. And her blouse, though not nearly so tight, artfully draped breasts that were unrestrained and obviously world-class.

Roberta casually strolled back and forth at the lip of the stage. Occasionally she would twirl about or move her hands in gracefully patterns. To Rick's puzzlement, these simple movements drew scattered applause from the audience.

Though Rick considered himself a pragmatic and logical man, he made no sense of the fact that a star of the magnitude of Roberta Jules would perform at a dive such as the Blue Garden. But before Rick formed any theories, Roberta moved off to far stage left, then gestured toward the curtains.

The music faded out, to be replaced by a monotonous drum beat. The audience cheered wildly; some even stood, only to be shouted down by those whose view they blocked. The drum beat seemed familiar to Rick. Then he remembered: It was the theme to a fantasy movie about a prehistoric barbarian.

"No!" muttered Rick to himself as he remembered who had starred in the epic. "How could they?"

As if cued to Rick's comment, unseen hands pulled apart the stage curtains, revealing a man of heroic proportions who was dressed in jack boots, cuffed blue-jeans, a white tee shirt, and a tight fitting motorcycle jacket. The man was carrying an AK-47 assault rifle and had an RPG rocket launcher slung over his back. The man was Harold Swartzendruber, current king of action-adventure movies.

In slack-jawed incredulity, Rick stared as the rest of the club's crowd howled their near riotous delight. Then, realizing his calm demeanor was conspicuous, Rick clapped and whistled too, even as he peered across the club, trying in vain to see if Harold's weapons were stage props. He hoped they were. In an instinctual movement, Rick pressed his left bicept in against the comforting bulk of his shoulder holster.

Slowly, ponderously, with an awkward gait, Harold walked downstage. An unlit cigar was clamped between his lips, and when Harold reached the edge of the stage, he shifted the AK-47 to his left hand, then used right free hand to remove the cigar from his mouth. He held it aloft, smiling a good-natured though slightly sardonic smile.

Perhaps because of Harold's imposing presence, the club's patrons quickly calmed themselves. Polite applause answered Harold's smile. He returned the cigar to his mouth, then moved over to stage right.

The blaring boom box faded to a piano concerto. Roberta sashayed her way to center stage. There, she turned toward the house and began to remove her clothing, her graceful movements following the gentle rhythms of the concerto. Despite the woman's grace, Rick noticed her fumbling with the buttons and zipper, and he wondered if she'd been drugged.

But Rick found it increasingly difficult to keep his mind on business. Roberta's unblemished skin, radiant beneath the bright stage lights, sheathed a form so sweetly delectable that groans and softly spoken swearwords swept through the audience as each successive article of clothing was removed and dropped.

When completely nude, Roberta kicked her clothes under the bed, then strutted back and forth across the stage, proudly displaying all she had to offer. In an endearing contrast, her shy eyes gave her a look of naive vulnerability.

The music shifted once more, making an abrupt cut to the theme of a science fiction movie that some years ago had been Harold's first major hit, and which was now a cult classic.

Roberta turned toward Harold. Harold handed his weapons offstage to the stagehand, then swaggered slowly over to Roberta, unlit cigar still held jauntily in his mouth, his hands arrogantly on his hips.

Without prelude, Roberta began to strip off Harold's clothing. Again, Rick noticed the inept handling of buttons and zippers; and Harold's jackboots presented a genuine trial. They must have been tight, for it took Roberta an unseemly amount of time to yank them off. Not that anyone cared, for to complete the task, Roberta bent double, her back to the audience. Again, the groans and oaths, accompanied by scattered applause.

When down to tee shirt and jockey shorts, the massively built movie star began flexing his muscles, positioning himself into poses that best displayed his impressive musculature.

And when Roberta peeled away Harold's tee shirt, his sharply articulated form looked almost godlike.

But when Roberta knelt before Harold and then slid off his jockey briefs, there came no response from the audience save for astonished gasps; for the magnificence of Harold's manhood was stunning. Rick shook his head in wonder as he thought of Harold's scrawny wife, a successful television personality in her own right, and of how such a slight and fragile looking woman could successfully accommodate a man such as Harold. It seemed to Rick to be a genuine mystery of nature.

And the mysteries of nature were much in evidence for what remained of the night's performance. Rick sat, quietly spellbound at what he saw during what little time that remained before the club closed. Roberta and Harold rapidly but expertly performed a quartet of couplings that culminated in a particularly strenuous session on the brass bed. It was during this final session that the reason for the floor bolts became obvious.

At exactly the 2 a.m. closing time, Harold and Roberta ended their lovemaking. Hand in hand, they walked to the lip of the stage, bowing theatrically to the applause of the audience. As the applause petered out, the couple turned in unison, trotting upstage and through the slit between curtains. The audience seemed impressed by the trotting exit, for the applause returned, only to again fade out.

The houselights came up and the most of the crowd jostled toward the exit. Rick fell into the back of the line of patrons filing through the door. The woman who had collected the cover charges was standing to one side. "Come again, " she said to a departing customer.

"Did you have a good time?" she asked of another.

"Tell your friends, " she instructed one young couple, who seemed to be in a daze as they clung to one another.

And when Rick came up to her, the woman pleasantly asked, "Enjoy the show?"

"Very much, " announced Rick, who then leaned in toward the woman, murmuring out the side of his mouth, "I'll be back."

Rick strode out onto the parking lot. The cool night air cleared his head. He walked toward his car, mulling over the night past. And as he drove home to his apartment, he mentally outlined the report he would make to the District Attorney.

When Rick arrived home, Cynthia Ann was still awake in their bed. She had a light on and the bedroom TV was spewing out some old, black-and-white sitcom.

Nervous of his safety, Cynthia Ann never slept when Rick was on late-night assignments. This night, as soon as Cynthia Ann saw the look in Rick's eyes, her concerned expression transformed to a knowing smile. She snuggled down into the warmth of the bedcovers and watched her boyfriend undress, her own eyes lovingly assessing Rick's slender, sinewy physique. Not a word passed between them as Rick climbed into the bed; no words were needed.

Later, as Cynthia Ann slipped into an exhausted but contented sleep, Rick lay quietly, carefully planning the next night's raid.

#

Saturday night found Rick and Cynthia Ann tucked into another of the Blue Garden's back booths; Rick had received permission to use Cynthia Ann as cover. With her slight but bewitching form packed into a tube-top and a much too short sheath-skirt, and with her pouting features slathered with makeup, Cynthia Ann looked slutty enough to be a working girl. Only she and Rick knew just how easy it was for her to do so.

When the cover charge woman came by to collect, her shrewd eyes mercilessly appraised Cynthia Ann. The woman snatched Rick's proffered bills. Another unlit cigarette bounced in time to her snide voice as she said, "Look's like you got more goin' on tonight than last night."

Rick smile was tight. "I guess you could say that."

The woman tossed a couple of drink chits on the table; they slid up against Cynthia Ann's forearm. "On the house, " announced the woman, broadly winking at Cynthia Ann.

The woman waddled off to the next booth. Cynthia Ann shivered, then shoved in against her boyfriend, as if seeking his warmth.

"It's okay, " whispered Rick.

The show began: an exact duplication of the previous night's presentation. When it reached the point to where Roberta removed Harold's briefs, Rick surreptitiously reached into his jacket pocket. He fumbled about, searching for the transmit bar of the handheld radio hidden there. Finding the bar, he pressed it twice. After the couple climbed onto the brass bed and began the most energetic portion of their act, Rick tapped the bar frantically until a phalanx of uniformed officers swept into the club, blocking off the exits and fanning out amongst the club's surprised and indignant customers.

The music stopped, replaced by puzzled and disgruntled mutterings of the audience. Rick rose, then marched quickly to the stage. Ignoring the stair steps, he vaulted onto the stage. The houselights came up.

Harold had halted in mid-stroke. Both he and Roberta seemed frozen in place. Rick loudly recited his carefully rehearsed statement: "Harold Swartzendruber, Roberta Jules -- you are under arrest for misdemeanor charges of participating in the unlawful display of sexual conduct in a live public show. You have the right to . . . ." Rick's voice trailed off.

Neither Harold nor Roberta had moved a muscle. With tentative movements, Rick pushed the tip of one forefinger against Harold's massive shoulder. The shoulder was covered by soft plastic: vinyl or some substance very close to it.

Before Rick had a chance to appreciate his discovery the stage curtains parted; the lab-coated, bearded man walked out. Seemingly unconcerned, hands in pockets and whistling a nonsensical tune, the man strolled over to Rick.

"Pardon me, officer, " the man announced, his voice dripping sarcasm. "I believe you've made a slight mistake." The audience laughed as if the scene were part of the show.

"Who are you?" warily asked Rick.

"James A. Meyer -- the producer and director of this little display; and if I may be allowed the considerable conceit, the creator of our friends here." The man gestured toward Roberta and Harold, then extended the same hand. "Call me Jim; everybody does."

Rick ignored the offer of a handshake. His nimble mind came to a conclusion. "These are robots, aren't hey?"

"I prefer to use the term bio-oids, " replied Jim. His condescending smile became noticeably arrogant, matching his tone of voice. "In reference to your little speech, I believe the legal definition of sexual conduct specifically refers to men and women, not automatons."

Seizing Rick's elbow, Jim pushed the officer against the bed. "Go ahead, " ordered Jim, "Poke about to your heart's content."

Rick yanked away from Jim's grip. Turning toward Harold, Rick again reached out, tapping Harold on the shoulder. As he then carefully slid the flat of his hand down Harold's massive back, Rick cocked his head, asking, "What's that whirring noise?"

"Pumps used for the circulation of blood."

"Blood?" Rick withdrew his hand.

Jim smirked. "Yes, blood. For you see, my bio-oids are comprised mainly of flesh -- beef, for the most part; though I occasionally use finer cuts of pork or lamb, the delicate musculature of the hands, feet, and face requiring an artful blending of tissues."

To Rick's questioning expression, Jim continued: "You doubt my words? Perhaps you'd care to take a look?"

Rick nodded. Jim backed through the curtains. The curtains parted; Jim stood at far stage right, pulling a cord.

Revealed backstage were two large tables, both piled high with computer cases and equipment racks packed full of electronic gear. There was a control panel with keyboards, joysticks, knobs and switches; and mounted on insulating pedestals, an array of whip antennas, their extreme shortness indicative of ultra-high frequency transmissions. Several video monitors displayed images of the stage or of telemetry readouts.

Jim went over to the control panel, typed on one the keyboards, then deftly worked the joysticks.

Harold came to life, pulled out of Roberta, then crawled slowly off the downstage side of the bed. Rick backed away; one hand slid under his jacket lapel; his eyes narrowed.

"No need to panic, officer, " chuckled Jim. "I assure you, my friend here is totally under control. Indeed, bio-oids have no minds of their own. All of their movements are controlled directly by me or by these computers." Jim gestured toward the stacks of equipment.

Harold stood tall, took one step away from the bed, faced the audience, then froze into a position of military attention.

Jim swaggered downstage, to behind Harold. From a pocket of his lab coat he fished out a short metal rod, which he used to lightly stroke the length of Harold's spine.

Jim beckoned for Rick to join him. Rick warily circled the bed, keeping his distance as he made the invited inspection.

A thin slit had appeared the entire length of Harold's spine. Once Rick was in position to observe, Jim deftly thrust the fingers of both hands into the slit. As if he were a butcher opening up a carcass, Jim pulled to the side both edges of the slit. His efforts formed a large aperture. He then stepped away to allow Rick had a better view.

Rick leaned forward, his stomach in contact with Roberta's torso. Seen within the boundaries of the aperture were a couple of small pumps feeding twin manifolds, which, in turn, were connected to a rat's nest of plastic tubing. Rick saw gelcel batteries, some printed circuit boards, and a skeletal system composed of aluminum girders and trusses, many of which were perforated with large holes and slots. But what most held his attention were transparent plastic bags, tightly enclosing cuts of meat. The bags were penetrated by numerous wires and tubes, and within the bags were more wires and smaller tubes and what appeared to be wire mesh, which spidered out across much of he meat's surface area.

As Rick gaped, Jim strode to the lip of the stage. His outstretched arms quieted the crowd. "Just a few more minutes, folks; then we'll restart the show."

Some quipster, perhaps emboldened by liquor, hollered in a falsetto voice, "If that pig keeps rubbin' up against Roberta, maybe we'll get more than what we paid for."

Uproarious laughter swept the club. Rick stepped back, his face red, a nervous smile doing little to mask his chagrin. "I think I've seen enough, " he said to Jim. "How 'bout we go backstage a minute?"

"Certainly, officer."

With Rick following close behind, Jim strode backstage, then closed the curtain. One of the bartenders put on background music, which merged with the excited talk and laughter of the club's patrons.

"Okay, officer, " said Jim, "let's hear your little speech so I can get on with my show."

Rick glared.

Jim swung his arms up and out, presenting Rick with his wrists. "Going to arrest me? I wish you would. I can make more in one false arrest settlement than I can with 50 performances."

Rick took one menacing step forward, nearly thumping Jim's chest with a rigid finger. "Listen, Buddy, " the detective snarled, "I know you're in violation of something here. I just gotta figure out what."

Jim smirked yet again. "I'll save you some time, officer. To date, I've been served at least a dozen times with injunctions or writs involving alleged copyright or trademark violations: all of which are outside your jurisdiction.

"I've got civil actions against me in four different states. Probably twenty percent of my gross income goes to lawyers. Fortunately, it's all deductible; and I might add, totally fruitless. You see, I've been rather clever in my depictions of celebrities. For instance, are you aware of the fact that the real Harold Swartzendruber is only five nine? My bio-oid, which I claim has absolutely no semblance to Harold, is six-foot-four."

Scornfully, Rick interrupted. "No resemblance? How can you say that? Your robot looks exactly like Harold."

"To the untrained eye, perhaps, " sniffed Jim, dismissing Rick's observation with a flippant wave of hand. "However, I assure you, in a proper court of law I shall call forth legions of doctors and anthropologists who, after taking the appropriate measurements, will find absolutely nothing in common between the likeness of any celebrity when in comparison to my bio-oids. And I think it only fair to warn you, any argument with that fact will result in an immediate petition to the judge for a subpoena, so that said celebrities may be subjected to such measurements and comparisons. Understand?

"Besides, what do you care? As I stated previously, it's out of your jurisdiction."

There came no immediate reply, for a uniformed patrolman came backstage, diverting Rick's attention. "Scuse me, Sarge, " said the patrolman. "Some of the customers keep giving the boys a bad time. Okay if we withdraw to the parking lot?"

"Go ahead, " ordered Rick. "I'll be out in a minute."

Rick turned back to Jim. "I got a couple more questions."

"Certainly, officer."

"Why haven't I heard anything about your so called show?

Jim's smirk fell into to a wry smile; his voice softened. "Like I said, I've all kinds of civil actions pending against me; I don't need more. By playing these two-bit clubs and keeping a low profile, makes it hard for the lawyers to chase me down. And word of mouth deletes any need for advertising."

"Sounds plausible, " said Rick. "So, what's the deal with the meat?"

Jim looked down his nose and just slightly askance, snootily appraising the Detective Sergeant. "Are you quite sure all this questioning is necessary?"

"You can answer the questions downtown, if that's what you want."

"Very well, " Jim said. "For what it's worth, I've had a lifelong interest in robotics. I've also grown very fond of the, ah, erotic arts. Unfortunately, the current state of robotics does not lend itself to the realistic practice or presentation of eroticism.

"I've spent half my life experimenting in the fields of pneumatics, hydraulics, electromagnetism-all with the intent of perfecting robotic motion to the point of what you witnessed here tonight -- and, I might add, with a notable lack of success. There is currently just no way to duplicate the fluidity of movement of living tissue.

"About a half-dozen years ago, I was vacationing at my brother-in-law's ranch. He has a large family; they raise, slaughter, and butcher their own livestock. As a lark, I participated in the cutting up of one of their beeves. It was then that I had the inspiration that has brought me to my current level of success. Need I say more?"

"Humor me."

"Very well. It took only a few years for me to perfect a method of interfacing with motor nerve axons. I won't bore you with the details; I doubt you'd understand much of what is involved. Suffice to say, my skills in implanting neurons culled from pig fetuses to bovine muscle groups is truly remarkable.

"And I have developed a unique, quick, and completely proprietary system of directing and delivering control signals through the myelin sheaths that insulate nerve fibers."

As Jim warmed to his subject, his manner became less patronizing, more affable. Rick remembered his days as a college student, enduring the aloof airs of distracted and self-absorbed professors.

"However, " Jim went on, "it is not the technical aspects of my creations that most challenge me. Choosing and sculpting the cuts of meat used to depict the limbs, thighs, buttocks and breasts, and indeed, all the other features of the human body is what truly appeals to my artistic temperament. Keeping the flesh alive and receptive to my commands is merely a technical achievement. But presenting that flesh in a completely realistic and entertaining manner is what makes it all worth while.

"Now, officer, my audience awaits. I really must insist that you either take action or leave me to my performance."

With no further comments or questions, Rick turned, strode through the slit between curtains, glanced briefly at Harold and Sandra in passing, then leapt off the stage.

Cynthia Ann was dutifully waiting in the booth; Rick went to her. "Let's go, " he ordered, his hand reaching for hers.

Grabbing wrap and purse, Rick's girlfriend slid out of the booth. Catcalls and whistles accompanied the couple to the exit.

At the parking lot, Rick left Cynthia Ann shivering in the chill air while he walked over to the clump of patrolmen. "Might as well call it a night, guys. Thanks for your help."

One officer asked, "That's it? No bust?"

"'fraid not, " answered Rick.

Rick's ears burned to the grumbling and cursing that accompanied the patrolmen back to their parked cruisers.

And Cynthia Ann did nothing to raise Rick's spirits. For on the way to their own car, she abruptly asked, "Did you screw up?"

Rick's mouth snapped open, ready to deliver some nasty retort. But all that came out was a curt, "Yeah."

#

Monday morning found Rick at his desk. The squad room for vice officers was small, dingy, and had no windows. Nonetheless the room held a certain appeal, being located at the far end of a long hallway, a considerable distance away from the never-ending bustle of the police station.

Rick typed busily at his terminal, forming a report of the weekend's action. The only other occupant of the squad room was Officer Diana Giddings; she was tabulating quarterly reports, paying no mind to Rick.

Rick's ears followed the sound of heavy steps pounding the worn but brightly waxed linoleum floor of the hallway; he continued typing.

Lieutenant Cochran clopped into the room. He held a frosted doughnut in one hand, a large paper cup of coffee in the other. Without a word in greeting, the portly officer went to Diana's desk, then sat heavily upon one edge, his plump posterior practically in Diana's face.

Cochran took a bite out of his doughnut before placing it on some paperwork piled at a corner of the desk. Idly gazing about the room, he sucked at his fingers, took a sip of coffee, and finally, he spoke. "I hear you people on the twat team had some problems last weekend."

Lieutenant Cochran twisted his bulk awkwardly about so as to leer at Officer Giddings. She kept her eyes locked to her work.

Replied Rick, "You'll have a full report within the hour, Lieutenant."

Cochran retrieved the remnants of his doughnut, stuffed the entire thing into his mouth, washing it down with another swig of coffee. Again sucking his fingers, the lieutenant fixed Rick with an insolent stare. "I can hardly wait, " he sarcastically announced, head bobbing arrogantly.

Grunting in effort, the Lieutenant scooted himself off the desk, then swaggered back down the hallway.

Officer Giddings looked up from her work. Gazing wistfully at Rick, her dark eyes a comforting beacon from across the gulf between the two desks, she sweetly said, "I think I'm going to miss you." She sounded as if she almost meant it.

"I'm not going anywhere, " blandly announced Rick, reaching for his telephone.

#

The following weekend, Rick returned to the Blue Garden. The detective had transformed his appearance to that of an aging war vet. A wig, false beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and Cynthia Ann's help with makeup had dramatically changed his appearance. And faded camouflage pants, a stained and torn army field jacket emblazoned with military patches, a bush hat, and worn out boots worked well in company with some strategically placed padding.

Confident of his disguise, Rick limped stiffly across the club to take a stool at the far end of the bar. He carefully counted out a few wadded up one dollar bills and some loose change before ordering an entire bottle of cheap fortified wine and a cheeseburger.

When the woman came round to collect the cover charge, Rick warily eyed her fistful of cash while she asked, "Stayin' for the show?"

Rick coughed into the back of one sleeve, then wiped his nose with the other. "How much?" he hoarsely replied.

"Double sawbuck."

"Double sawbuck? That'll bust me. How 'bout five bucks?"

The woman inspected the patches on Rick's fatigue jacket. "I lost an uncle over there, " she commented, nodding toward the service patches. "He was a Marine. Keep your money; it's on the house."

"Thankee ma'am, " Rick said before again coughing into the back of one sleeve.

When the show started, Rick's hand was already in the side pocket of the fatigue jacket. He pressed twice upon the transmit bar of his radio. When the Roberta robot removed Harold's briefs, Rick pressed three times. And when the show reached its climax, Rick repeatedly and rapidly pressed the bar until uniformed officers streamed into the club. This time the officers were accompanied by a couple of deputy sheriffs, distinctive in their brown uniforms, and followed by a man and woman in civilian garb, both carrying clipboards, the man additionally encumbered by a couple of styrofoam ice chests.

The music stopped. The houselights came up. Rick removed the wig and glasses and peeled off the fake beard. He unzipped his jacket, reaching inside in order to adjust the positioning of his shoulder holster. Satisfied that all was ready, he marched over to the front of the stage.

Above the grumbling of the audience and the barked orders of police officers, Rick shouted, "Come on out, Jim! Show's over!"

From behind the curtains, Jim strode onto the stage; a fierce scowl marred his features. But before Jim walked downstage to Rick, the cover charge woman came scurrying across the club, her wide hips knocking aside tables and chairs as she shrieked at Rick, "You asshole! I want your badge number!"

Rick fished his badge holder out of his pants pocket. He solemnly removed the badge from its holder, then pinned it to the chest of the fatigue jacket.

While the woman peered at Rick's badge, another woman joined them. Well dressed, an attractive thirtyish, holding a clipboard to her chest, the woman sidled over to Rick until they stood shoulder to shoulder.

"Ma'am, " announced Rick to the huffing and puffing woman still glaring at his badge, "have you ever met our County Health Officer?"

The woman tore her gaze away from Rick's badge so as to suspiciously eye the Health Officer.

The woman, well dressed in tweed, extended a hand. "Name's Pederson, " she said in a low voice. "Kelly Pederson. You own this establishment?"

"Yeah. Me an' my hubby. Useta belong to my folks."

"And for the record, your name is?" Kelly consulted her clipboard.

"Jackie Reynolds, if it's any of your business. Say -- what's goin' on here?"

Through a grim and totally unconvincing little smile, Kelly proclaimed, "Well Jackie, I'm going to ask you a couple of questions. And It's very important that you be completely truthful in your answers. Presenting me with false or evasive responses can cost you up to a thousand dollars in fines and up to thirty days in the county jail. Understand?

"I . . . I guess so." Jackie backed her considerable bulk a couple of shuffling steps.

Using an expensive looking gold pen, Kelly checked off something on her clipboard, then held the pen aloft, ready for more use. "Do you prepare or serve meat or meat based food products for human consumption at this place of business?"

"Yeah, sure; we run a grill here. So what?"

Kelly made a notation to a small piece of paper affixed to her clipboard, then asked, "Has all of the meat within confines of this place of business and/or within 30 feet of the food preparation area been Federally inspected?"

Jackie opened her mouth as if to answer, then closed it. Her eyes narrowed as she looked up toward Jim, who was standing at the lip of the stage. "No, " she firmly answered.

"No? Am I to understand that you freely admit to violating county, state, and possibly federal regulations?"

The was a long pause before the answer: "Yes."

Kelly turned the clipboard sideways. She scribbled furiously on a long and narrow multipart form, then tore a page from it. As she handed the copy to Jackie, Kelly said, "Call the telephone number listed at the top of this citation. They will set a date and time for your hearing. I suggest that when you appear before the judge, you bring along a good lawyer."

Jackie nodded.

Kelly turned to one of the deputy sheriffs, standing nearby. "Soon as this building's cleared, I want the doors locked and proper signage affixed."

The deputy nodded.

Eyes flashing, Kelly threw Rick a quick but becoming smile. "It's been a pleasure, Rick."

Rick bowed slightly. Kelly traipsed off, her heals beating a sharp tattoo upon the hardwood floor.

Rick's attention focused on another; Jackie was approached by a man dressed in a suit, which was partially covered up by a short white lab coat. The man wore a ridiculous looking white pillbox-style cap.

The man presented credentials as he spoke: "Name's Reilly; I represent the Federal Food and Drug Administration. I understand you have some uninspected meat on the premises?"

Voice quavering, Jackie answered, "Yes."

"May I be allowed to see it?" Though officious, the man seemed genuinely concerned over Jackie's distress, for he then gently gripped her arm, asking, "Are you okay?"

Pulling away from the federal agent, Jackie shuffled over to a nearby chair. She lowered herself slowly onto it, nodding her answer.

The man again asked, "May I see the meat?"

"Talk to him, " replied Jackie, pointing a trembling fat forefinger at Jim. "It's his, not mine."

All eyes fell upon Jim. Uncharacteristically, he seemed to shy away from the scrutiny.

Reilly asked, "Sir? May I see the meat?"

"I don't suppose I have a choice?"

"I'm afraid not, Sir."

Jim beckoned Reilly to the stairs. Once again, Jim opened Harold at the spine; Reilly used a small penlight to inspect the robot's innards."

"Do you declare this meat to be yours?" asked Reilly, shining the light on a piece that backed up Harold's pectorals.

"I do, " replied Jim.

"Is this meat for sale?"

"Certainly not." Jim seemed insulted by the question.

Reilly switched off the penlight, pulled a small notebook from a coat pocket, then turned toward Jim, who was standing a little downstage of him.

In an formal tone of voice, Reilly asked, "I can only assume this meat is from a custom slaughter?"

"My brother-in-law and I did all the work, if that's what you mean."

"Are you aware of the fact that custom slaughtered meat may be allowed in a establishment such as this only when it's clearly labeled with indelible ink as not for sale?"

"I was completely unaware of that, " admitted Jim. "I'll take care of it first thing in the morning."

"Perhaps, " commented Reilly. "However, this particular lot is now the property of the Federal Government, and except for a few samples, will be destroyed by morning. Would you be so kind as to remove the meat from the containers?"

"What?" exclaimed Jim, his face a suddenly deranged projection of stunned disbelief. "It takes me a couple weeks to put one of these babies together."

"I fail to see how that has any bearing upon these proceedings, " blithely responded Reilly.

Angrily, Jim faced Rick, growling, "I had you pegged for a jerk the first moment I laid eyes on your sorry face."

Rick said nothing. But he smiled smugly.

With pursed lips and one arched eyebrow, Jim stared at his antagonist. He then sighed dejectedly, looking as if he had something more to say. Rick pre-empted him.

"I want you out of my town, " Rick said with derisive mildness.

Officer Giddings was onstage, inspecting the robots. "Hey Giddings, " Rick called out. She turned. An elfish expression of bemused disbelief enhanced her pleasant features.

"I'm done here, " Rick announced. "Can you stick around until the place is cleared?"

"Sure."

Rick strode off, through the door, out into the night.

Jim went to his robots. He began the task of removing chunks of meat from his creations, carefully detaching wires and tubes and wire mesh before placing the meat into Reilly's ice chests.

Officer Giddings stood nearby, making notations to her notepad.

In a melancholy tone of voice, Jim said to her, "I believe I've seriously underestimated your friend."

"It's easy to do, " Giddings murmured. #

Rick entered his apartment; he found Cynthia Ann on the couch. Curled up under a warm and fuzzy blanket, she was halfway through a recording of a Harold Swartzendruber movie.

"Get dressed, " Rick ordered. "We're driving out to that steakhouse by the freeway. They're open 24 hours, and we're going to get us a couple T-bones."

Her eyes firmly locked to the television screen, Cynthia Ann dismissively replied, "You know I don't eat meat, honey. You shouldn't either."

Rick moved to the side a little, blocking Cynthia Ann's view of the television screen. "Yeah?" he questioned archly. "Well, I feel like celebrating, so you're eatin' some tonight.

Their eyes met; Cynthia Ann smirked. She lowered the blanket.

The television blared on and on. Harold slew all his foes. To a rhythmic and primitive drumbeat, the credits scrolled up and off the screen. At the end of the credits the recorder clicked off.

No one noticed.

END

By Pappy -

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