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<title>The United States of Air: a Satire</title>
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<p class="blurb"><strong>The National Sewer Agency is spying on people&rsquo;s toilets, looking for food terrorists...</strong></p>
<p class="blurb_text">
Food Enforcement Agent Jason Frolick believes in America. He believes in eating air. He struggles to get the food monkey off his back. As part of the Global War on Fat, his job is to put food terrorists in Fat Camp.
<p class="blurb_text">
When a pizza dealer gets whacked in the park across the street from the Thin House, the Prophet Jones himself asks Frolick to investigate. For the first time ever, Frolick solves a murder&mdash;but what he finds out shakes his faith.
<p class="blurb_text">
Will he ever be able to eat air again?
<p class="blurb">Want a free copy of <em>The United States of Air</em>? Willing to write an honest Amazon review? Shoot me an email at <strong></strong> with the Subject: "Go the Power of Air!" and I, the author, will send you a free ebook for your reading and reviewing pleasure.</p>
<p class="title"><span class="centered">THE UNITED STATES OF AIR</span></p>
<p class="author"><span class="centered">By</span></p>
<p class="author"><span class="centered">J.M. Porup</span></p>
<p class="dedication"><em>For the fools who still believe</em></p>
<p class="chapter">One</p>
<p>Look at how fat I am. Isn&rsquo;t it disgusting? Here. Let me pull up my shirt. See? Zoom in that camera. Can all of you see? How much fat I can pinch? And don&rsquo;t you go telling me that&rsquo;s loose skin. Just because I have an eighteen-inch waist doesn&rsquo;t mean I&rsquo;m not fat. I know what fat looks like. It&rsquo;s my job. Or used to be. Before I became ambassador to France, I was plain old Jason Frolick, Special Agent for the ATFF.</p>
<p>That&rsquo;s the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Food, for all you ferrners out there watching. It was my job to put food terrists in Fat Camp. And the kinds of fat I saw! A reminder every day why the Global War on Fat is so important. Thank the Prophet for the Amendment. No, not <em>that</em> Prophet. I mean President Jones. We all call him the Prophet. If it weren&rsquo;t for him, our country would still be enslaved to addictive caloric substances, otherwise known in ghetto street lingo as &ldquo;food.&rdquo;</p>
<p>What&rsquo;s he saying? Come on. Translate for me, already. By the Prophet&rsquo;s empty belly, you&rsquo;d think an advanced country like France would have learned how to speak English by now, and how to eat air.</p>
<p>Fat Camp. He wants to know more about Fat Camp. Is that it?</p>
<p>And no, I&rsquo;m not irritable because I&rsquo;m hungry. That&rsquo;s French propaganda and you know it. That&rsquo;s what this news show is, right? A thinly disguised propaganda machine? Next you&rsquo;ll be telling me that food is not a drug, and that no one can eat air.</p>
<p>Oh, for eating out loud. You mean that so-called undercover documentary? By whatzizface, the BBC journalist? Or should I say, French <em>saboteur.</em> Just listen to the guy.</p>
<p>&ldquo;People are starving to death. Hoarding food, eating in secret, denouncing their neighbors. Selling everything they own to buy precious calories on the black market. Corpses whisked away at dawn by special cleanup crews.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I mean, come on! Those dead bodies are obviously fake. Probably filmed on some movie lot right here in Paris. It&rsquo;s lies like this that have forced us to censor the Internet, so that you ferrners cannot infect our people&rsquo;s faith with doubt.</p>
<p>Now where was I&hellip; Fat Camp. Thank you. Our finest achievement. I am so proud of our network of re-education facilities. From coast to coast, dedicated military personnel help citizens, free of charge, get the monkey off their backs. Our trainers teach the air-eating technique pioneered by the Prophet and set forth in his ground-breaking book <em>Food-Free At Last.</em> But even more important, Fat Camps offer sanctuary from temptation. A place where you can go to reinforce your faith. Because even the slightest doubt will destroy your ability to digest air&mdash;and on an air-only diet, that can be fatal. Nowhere else I know is so conducive to breaking the shackles of addiction and setting yourself free.</p>
<p>Because that&rsquo;s what it&rsquo;s all about. Freedom. Abraham Lincoln freed the blacks from slavery. The Prophet freed us from the Tyranny of Food. No longer must we be slaves to our appetites. We are free to become pure spirit, undiluted intelligence. Souls unstained by orange cheese puff smears, stray dollops of pizza sauce or mashed-up French fries.</p>
<p>In doing so, he set us all free. The entire human race. That is why I&rsquo;ve come here, to France, as your ambassador, to bring you a message of hope&mdash;glad tidings of great joy&mdash;that you too can be free. I call on all of you, everyone out there watching now, in every country round the world: rise up! Rise up, and break the chains that bind you to your dinner plate. Eat air. Drink water. Have faith. That is all you need.</p>
<p>You are laughing, sir. You claim to be, what? France&rsquo;s most venerated and distinguished newscaster, whatever your unpronounceable name is? I remind you, sir, of Gandhi&rsquo;s words: &ldquo;First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Not laughing anymore, are we?</p>
<p>Let us be clear. I am here today with a message. From the Prophet himself to the people of France. The rest of you ferrners out there too. The Prophet is the Leader of the Food-Free World. And France, I am sorry to say, is stuck in her oldey-worldey, food-addicted, pleasure-loving past. A time is coming when you will have to choose. You are either with us, or you are against us. Which is it going to be?</p>
<p>Don&rsquo;t bother to translate that, whatever he&rsquo;s saying. I&rsquo;m not interested. I&rsquo;m not asking for an answer now. I will say only this: attempts to depose the Prophet and reinstate the Tyranny of Food in our country, as the French Secret Service tried to do last month, can only result in war. Because of you French, we almost lost everything.</p>
<p>But I forgive you. It&rsquo;s not your fault. It&rsquo;s the food talking. All these baguettes and cheeses and wines I see you people eating. My heart aches to think how you must suffer. That&rsquo;s why I agreed to come on this news show. I understand, from painful personal experience, how hard it is to break the cycle of addiction. At the Prophet&rsquo;s personal request, I am going to share with you my own struggle against food.</p>
<p>If you&rsquo;ve tried to lose weight, if you&rsquo;ve tried to free yourself from the seemingly inescapable vicelike grip of appetite masquerading as hunger&mdash;come closer. Yes, you. Here. Huddle around the television and learn that you are not alone. Because I used to be just like you. Eating every day. Unable to stop putting food in my mouth. Dancing to my stomach&rsquo;s tune.</p>
<p>Nor is my struggle over. Even now, three years since the Prophet came to power, and the Amendment passed, my faith is not complete. I still suffer from&mdash;but how can I say this? I must. The Prophet has ordered me to tell you. Of my secret shame. It is only with your help, all of you out there watching, that I hope to finally be able to hold my head up high.</p>
<p>How can you help me, you ask? You shall see. But first, let me tell you of my own journey. How I came to know and love the Prophet&rsquo;s words, to embrace the path of eating air, and from my humble beginnings as an ATFF agent, became the ambassador to France, and the Prophet&rsquo;s spokesman to the world.</p>
<p class="chapter">Two</p>
<p>I wasn&rsquo;t always this fat. I used to be a tub of lard. In fact, lard was my favorite food. I&rsquo;d use an ice cream scoop to make lard sundaes, smothered in hot bacon drippings, crunchy chunks of pork rind, with a pickle on top. To cut the grease a bit, you know. Even now, just thinking about it makes my mouth water.</p>
<p>Sometimes I&rsquo;d go on a diet. I&rsquo;d buy half a dozen pallets of the world&rsquo;s best diet food: Twinkies. The diet was simple: all the Twinkies I wanted. But only Twinkies. Nothing else. After a week of this grueling diet, I&rsquo;d put myself up on the scale. Since it was impossible to see my feet at that time, much less read the scale, I had to guess my weight. It usually seemed like I&rsquo;d lost a few pounds, so I&rsquo;d celebrate with a hot lard sundae, extra pork rind. Man, that crunch used to drive me wild.</p>
<p>This was before the Prophet came to power. I was working as a D.C. cop, and when I wasn&rsquo;t patiently explaining to criminals their constitutional rights, or reminding them that the American justice system was the fairest in the world, I was eating. On a typical shift, my partner Harry Green and I would each consume three dozen doughnuts, two large pizzas, seven or eight Big Macs, depending on our appetites, and, for dessert, hidden in the trunk of our cruiser against all regulations, our secret ice box of chilled butter and lard. I confess I never could understand his preference for butter. We&rsquo;d cut off thick wedges, let them melt on our tongues. For a time, it seemed like heaven.</p>
<p>Looking back, I know that it was hell.</p>
<p>I will never forget the first time I heard the Prophet speak. I had finished my shift and grabbed a bucket of fried chicken on the way home. A light snack before bed. Crashed out on the sofa, the bucket between my gargantuan thighs. Flicked on the news. And there he was. Running for President.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Food is a drug!&rdquo; he thundered at an arena full of blubber. People just like me. &ldquo;You don&rsquo;t need to eat! That&rsquo;s a myth! All you need is air!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Then he proceeded to do something extraordinary. He showed us his teeth, opened his mouth wide and chomped down on something invisible. He chewed, jaws working up and down, then swallowed loudly and patted his stomach with a satisfied grin.</p>
<p>&ldquo;If I can do it,&rdquo; he shouted, to cheers from the crowd, &ldquo;you can do it too!&rdquo;</p>
<p>He railed against the agro-business special interests that had brainwashed us into thinking that food was harmless, had corrupted our youth with their addictive caloric substances, and filled our hospitals with patients suffering from heart disease, diabetes and cancer.</p>
<p>Global warming. Crowded jails. Nuclear weapons. Drivers who forget to signal. All our social ills are caused by one thing only: the stuff we put in our mouths that we don&rsquo;t need. By food. By calories. And by eliminating the source of all these evils, and enforcing a zero-calorie air-only diet, we turn our country into a city on a hill, a light in the darkness, a beacon that other nations may follow on their own journeys down the Superhighway of Purity and Air.</p>
<p>&ldquo;There is hope!&rdquo; the Prophet declared to a sea of worshipful faces, their double and triple chins quivering with joy under the stadium lights. &ldquo;Hope for a Food-Free World! Ask yourself: Whose fault is it that you&rsquo;re fat?&rdquo; And his face went grim and the crowd fell silent. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s <em>their</em> fault!&rdquo; he roared. &ldquo;Them! The fat people!&rdquo; He pounded the podium with his fist. &ldquo;How can you be thin if you&rsquo;re surrounded by fat?&rdquo;</p>
<p>As if on cue, the crowd began to chant, &ldquo;Down with fat! Down with fat! Down with fat!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Don&rsquo;t blame yourself!&rdquo; he shouted, to cries of swooning adulation. &ldquo;You must see the change you wish to be in the world!&rdquo;</p>
<p>I threw my half-eaten chicken wing back into the bucket, and kicked it across the room. &ldquo;See the change you wish to be.&rdquo; My God, he was right! Those evil fatties would pay. The Prophet continued to speak, but I don&rsquo;t remember his exact words anymore, just the realization that this was my last chance.</p>
<p>Because, you see, I didn&rsquo;t eat because I wanted to. I never <em>wanted</em> to. I didn&rsquo;t even enjoy it. I ate because I had to. If my jaws weren&rsquo;t moving, I wasn&rsquo;t happy. If one of my hands didn&rsquo;t hold the next mouthful in readiness, primed for the moment my mouth became vacant, I&rsquo;d get panic attacks. I&rsquo;d have to stop whatever I was doing and find something, anything to eat&mdash;a dozen hot dogs cold out of the package, ten-pound bags of year-old liquorice, boxes of melted chocolate abandoned in a supermarket dumpster&mdash;it didn&rsquo;t matter. Being a D.C. cop is stressful, especially when you let criminals go if they promise not to do it again and you wind up arresting them the very next day for the exact same crime. This happened to me all the time, and it was so disappointing. All I wanted to do was plunge both hands full of food into my mouth at once. Eating calmed me down. Nothing else worked.</p>
<p>Of course you know the election results. It&rsquo;s a matter of history. The Prophet campaigned on the slogan &ldquo;Let&rsquo;s Put America On A Diet!&rdquo;&mdash;and won. By a landslide. Within six months the Amendment passed by unanimous consent of all fifty states, except for Vermont. A real disgrace, that. Apparently some quack doctor, a member of that state&rsquo;s General Assembly, probably high on barley or wheat or whatever the food users pop up there, abstained from the vote in protest, making the absurd claim that consuming food is necessary to life. You might as well say that drinking a bottle of gin every day is necessary to life. Or snorting cocaine. Shooting up heroin. I mean, come on, you know? Anyway, he got his due. A group of Vermont&rsquo;s leading citizens, enraged at this blot on their state&rsquo;s reputation, burned the man&rsquo;s house down, raped his wife and shot his dog. I&rsquo;m sorry? It&rsquo;s a traditional American way of showing disapproval. Don&rsquo;t worry, though. The dog survived.</p>
<p>I see you shaking your head. Now, I know it&rsquo;s hard for some of you ferrners out there to understand the innovative ideas coming out of the New World. Backward Old World types like yourself&mdash;no offense&mdash;well, you&rsquo;ve been addicted to food for thousands of years. In America, or &ldquo;Air,&rdquo; as I should say, the name got changed by the Amendment, we&rsquo;ve got the chance to do things differently. To do things <em>right.</em> Make a better life for ourselves and our children.</p>
<p>The Prophet rode a mandate into office, and he wasted no time in spending his political capital. In making that better life come true for all Airitarians. He declared a Global War on Fat.</p>
<p>As soon as he moved into the Thin House, he ordered all supermarkets bulldozed, all restaurants demolished, all farmers forbidden to cultivate under penalty of death. By the time the Amendment passed, the Prophet&rsquo;s crop-dusting program was well under way. The entire Air Force, stealth bomber and all, was equipped with aerial spraying equipment and billions of tons of the most potent herbicide available. Twelve months ago today he celebrated the sterilization of the last square inch of arable land in the country: a tiny crack in a sidewalk in Baltimore, where grass had sprouted between the concrete slabs. And don&rsquo;t think he kept anything aside for himself, either. The Prophet has always led by example. He personally put on a space suit and sprayed the Thin House lawn, making sure that every last flower in the Rose Garden was dead.</p>
<p>I told you, I&rsquo;m not going to take any questions until the&mdash;what? Excuse me? People starving in Africa&hellip; Why don&rsquo;t we send our food to Africa? If we don&rsquo;t want it, they&rsquo;ll eat it. You know, it&rsquo;s questions like this that piss me off. I&rsquo;m sorry to use the p-word like that, but it makes me so mad. What&rsquo;s happening in Africa is a tragedy, but it&rsquo;s not our fault. We sent them missionaries. To show them a new way of life. Air-eating is sustainable regardless of drought. It doesn&rsquo;t matter if it rains or not.</p>
<p>And what did they do? What did those ungrateful Africans do? Strapped down our young men and women and force-fed them cornmeal mixed with soybean oil and sugar. You understand? They tortured our missionaries. So forgive me when I say, if people are starving in Africa, it&rsquo;s their own goddamn fault. There, I used the g-d-word, see what you made me do.</p>
<p>No, I don&rsquo;t want any water. I am calm.</p>
<p>Listen, I&rsquo;ll tell you what is a problem that worries me. Illegal emigration. These people are slowly destroying our country. It&rsquo;s like they <em>want</em> to be slaves to their digestive systems. I feel sorry for them. This is why we&rsquo;ve sealed our borders. Why sentries patrol the no-man&rsquo;s-land with Mexico, with orders to shoot to kill anyone trying to escape over that wall or wade the Rio Grande. These people must not be allowed to reach the taco and burrito stands that line the Mexican side of the river.</p>
<p>This may seem extreme to some of you, but I assure you it&rsquo;s a question of freedom. Every citizen of the US of Air is born with the inalienable right to be free. Free from addiction to food. But some people, hardened food terrists, most of them, reject freedom. They refuse to be free. I tell you now, the Prophet will not rest until everyone is free, no matter what the cost in blood or treasure.</p>
<p>Take our decision to ground all civilian air traffic. The economic impact was huge, but it was necessary to combat food terrism. Shortly after the Prophet took office, food terrists hijacked hundreds of 747s and forced the pilots to fly to Cuba at the business end of a corn dog. Dangerous thing, a corn dog, especially to a pilot suffering food withdrawal.</p>
<p>Of course, we demanded these terrists be extradited, to be tried for their crimes in Food Court. But the freedom-hating regime of that island nation refused.</p>
<p>In fact, not a month went by before Cuba rebranded itself the &ldquo;Fat Capital of the World.&rdquo; Trying to lure our tender young minds away from the Path of Righteousness and Air to the soul-destroying corruption of their beachside &ldquo;restaurants.&rdquo; Food labs is what they are. And they invite thousands of French chefs to come and practice their disgusting and illegal craft in these food labs. &ldquo;Cooking,&rdquo; I believe the dealers call it. You know, when they mix different caloric substances together in precise measurements in a metal container, and then hold the container over a high heat. Kind of like a meth lab, except none of the ingredients are available over the counter.</p>
<p>It gets worse. It&rsquo;s not enough that Cuba supports these manufacturers of suffering and addiction. Our intelligence sources indicate the presence of joint Cuban-French training camps&mdash;don&rsquo;t bother to deny it, we&rsquo;ve got satellite photos, we&rsquo;ve even got the recipes&mdash;where Cuban guerrillas train French chefs with at least three Michelin stars to infiltrate our borders, prepare addictive caloric substances to tempt senior government officials, and then blackmail them.</p>
<p>Cuba is, as it has always been, one of our greatest enemies.</p>
<p>And you know, if Cuba wasn&rsquo;t such a threat to our freedom, the Flotilla would never have happened. That&rsquo;s what you vultures in the media called it, right? Cuba sets itself up as a beacon of food for the so-called hungry, and soon thousands of our citizens are risking their lives to paddle across the Florida Straits, many on improvised rafts made out of driftwood and lashed together with old shoelaces. The Coast Guard turned back boat after boat, raft after raft, until the yachties organized the Flotilla. Six months ago, it was. You remember. Twenty thousand boats left Miami in one great pack, yachts and sailboats and powerboats, and thousands and thousands of homemade rafts. As per the Prophet&rsquo;s &ldquo;wet foot, dead foot&rdquo; policy, the Coast Guard opened fire as soon as they entered international waters, but ran out of bullets. Luckily there was an aircraft carrier nearby, and the Coast Guard was able to call in air support. Fighters strafed the Flotilla until only debris and dismembered body parts were left.</p>
<p>We got a lot of bad press about this, at least in your international papers. But you&rsquo;ve got to remember something. These people were dangerous food terrists who would do anything for their next hit. Like the Johnson brothers. Exactly. Sure, I know what happened to them. The only two survivors of the Flotilla, and what do they do? Go on Cuban television and tell everyone how happy they are to have a full stomach for a change. The world watching, and they stick out their tongues at us. Couple of thumb-sucking six-year-old brats. The CIA took them out. Boom-boom. Double tap. One in the chest, one in the head. Food terrists like that are a threat to every freedom-loving nation in the world.</p>
<p>Even tough love has its limits, you know? We tried to help them. We wanted them to be free. But they refused our help. It was out of compassion that we put them down. Put them out of their misery. It is better to be dead than a slave.</p>
<p>Live Free or Die. That&rsquo;s the US of A&rsquo;s motto. The Prophet&rsquo;s mantra, too. When he meditates, he takes a deep breath, exhales slowly and chants, <em>Livefreeordiiiieeee. Livefreeordiiiieeee. Livefreeordiiiieeee. </em>So relaxing. You should try it sometime.</p>
<p>That&rsquo;s a stupid question. How do I sleep at night? Same as you do. I turn off the lights, get into bed and dream about George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. What would the Founding Fathers say to see us now, how much progress we&rsquo;ve made since their day, taking not just our country but the entire human race to a new, higher plane of existence?</p>
<p>And it&rsquo;s sad, really. What happened to the Johnson brothers, and to others like them. Because it could all have been avoided, if they had been willing to give Fat Camp a chance. I remember when I went to Fat Camp. It was a wonderful experience.</p>
<p>The Prophet declared a special amnesty for law enforcement officials. Volunteer and you got to keep your job. It&rsquo;s true some officers decided to stockpile weapons and cases of their favorite drug, and head for the hills. The Air Force has since bombed those mountain hideouts back into the Stone Age.</p>
<p>Fat Camp changed my life, as it changed the lives of so many of my fellow Airitarians. The military trainers marched us through the fields on long excursions, our mouths wide open, sucking down God&rsquo;s great air. If you were unlucky you might swallow a fly or a mosquito. That puts your progress back for weeks, let me tell you. Addiction means addiction. A heroin addict can&rsquo;t shoot up every now and again. It&rsquo;s all or nothing. You can&rsquo;t perfect your air-eating technique until you&rsquo;ve been food-free for at least a month, and sometimes not even then.</p>
<p>Did you know that air comes in thirty-one flavors? You can have a different one every night of the week&mdash;for four weeks! Like vanilla, cilantro and asparagus. My favorite was always Mexican night. They&rsquo;d let off a blast of pepper spray over the camp, and we&rsquo;d run around with our eyes closed, taking great gulps of that wonderful taco taste. Which just goes to prove to you critics out there that we&rsquo;re not Puritans. We aren&rsquo;t anti-pleasure. Only anti-food.</p>
<p>A demonstration? Sure. Of course. You won&rsquo;t get any results the first time just by copying what I do. But I&rsquo;ll humor you. I can see the studio audience is curious, as no doubt are your viewers. It&rsquo;s only fair for them to see what they are missing out on, don&rsquo;t you think?</p>
<p>Here. Let me stand. You know, I&rsquo;ve never eaten air in front of such a large audience before. Oops. The mike. Sure. Got it. Now, stand up. All of you. Stand up with me. That&rsquo;s it. Now move around a little. Loosen up. Shake those hands. Good. Nice and loose. Now make sure there&rsquo;s plenty of fresh air circulating near your head. Near your mouth. For instance, you should avoid eating air in basements, and in other poorly ventilated spaces. When you&rsquo;re ready, open your mouth. Wide, wide, wide, as far as it goes&mdash;yes, that&rsquo;s it&mdash;now lunge forward and chomp. Good. This is key. Lunge and chomp. No, no, no! You forgot to seal your lips. Tell him. Translate this. Classic beginner&rsquo;s mistake. The air leaks out through your lips or your nose before you can swallow it, digest it. You&rsquo;ve got to pinch your nose shut, keep your lips tightly sealed while you munch on your very first atmospheric snack. Good one!</p>
<p>Above and beyond technique, there is one final ingredient crucial to eating air. I&rsquo;ve mentioned it already. That is faith. You must believe. Anyone can master the technique, given time. But without faith, your body cannot digest air. You have to have faith in yourself. Doubt of any kind, even the tiniest niggle in the back of your mind, destroys all your hard work and puts you back to square one.</p>
<p>For those of you interested in attending Fat Camp yourself, and I&rsquo;m sure many of you are, the embassy here in Paris has constructed a series of demonstration Fat Camps throughout the French countryside. We&rsquo;ve already begun to enroll a small number of volunteers. Naturally we&rsquo;d like to see France build more Fat Camps, enough for the entire population, to help bring freedom to the enslaved French people. And I have to say, between you and me? French air is the most flavorsome I have ever tasted.</p>
<p>To go back a bit. When I graduated from Fat Camp, top of my class, a federal recruiter was waiting for me. Lieutenant Brownnose Lickit&mdash;I remember the chocolate-colored stain on his chin no amount of rubbing could ever seem to remove. He wore a trench coat with a tape measure wrapped tight around his narrow waist&mdash;the uniform of the newly reorganized ATFF that was to strike fear into the hearts of food terrists everywhere. He looked me up and down, not without a little disgust. I had lost two hundred pounds in thirty days, but I still had at least three hundred more to go. Finally he asked me if I was serious in my desire to enlist in the War on Fat.</p>
<p>Absolutely, I told him. There was nothing I wanted more. Nothing I wouldn&rsquo;t do to achieve victory in that fight.</p>
<p>It was then he invited me to join the Food Enforcement Division&rsquo;s training program. He slid a tape measure across the table with a smile.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Welcome to the front lines of the defining conflict of our age.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The tape measure didn&rsquo;t fit, of course. It was another four months before I got my waistline down to twenty-five inches, the maximum allowed by the Bureau.</p>
<p>Our training was rigorous. They taught us a smorgasbord of techniques to subdue the rampaging food terrist. We learned Kung Yum Chop, an Eastern martial art that favored chopsticks as the weapon of choice. Stunt drivers demonstrated cornering at low speeds in our government-issued Smart Cars. (As part of his campaign promise to slim down government, the Prophet had sold the administration&rsquo;s fleet of black SUVs and replaced them with Smart Cars.)</p>
<p>But most of our training was dedicated to the Laxafier, the Bureau&rsquo;s standard-issue sidearm. The Prophet had replaced all service weapons with these six-round laxative revolvers. Each dart contained enough tranquilizer to drop a fattie charging an all-you-can-eat buffet, and enough laxative to empty his bowels immediately.</p>
<p>The day I became an ATFF agent and put on that tape measure for the first time was the proudest day of my life. The anthem playing, the flag fluttering and snapping in the breeze, the pepper spray canister the organizers let off over our heads&mdash;I was so happy I couldn&rsquo;t stop crying. We swore the oath of office together, vowing solemnly to protect and defend the Amendment against all enemies, both ferrn and domestic. Together we lunged and chomped for the camera, snacking on that exotic Mexican air, and finally tied our tape measures around our waists, from which dangled our bright new badges of office.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s our motto?&rdquo; our captain shouted.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Liberty or Death!&rdquo; we roared back.</p>
<p>A tingle went up my spine as I shouted with the rest of them. We were on the cutting edge of human evolution. And I was part of that. Part of something greater than myself. Helping to make the world a better place.</p>
<p>No, I&rsquo;m fine. Really. Just something in my eyes, is all.</p>
<p>It would have been a perfect day, except for my wife, Chantal. She showed up with Nathan, our ten-year-old son, in tow, a gallon of fudge ripple ice cream under her arm. To this day I don&rsquo;t know where she got it. I couldn&rsquo;t believe what she did next. She opened the carton in front of everyone&mdash;and put a spoonful in her mouth!</p>
<p>Here we were, a couple hundred freshly minted ATFF agents, recruited to stamp out precisely this kind of food abuse, and here she was, my wife, chowing down in front of my new colleagues. I just stood there, frozen, I was so embarrassed. But when she went to give a spoonful to our child, I started to run. It took me five minutes to cover the fifty feet to where she sat, the withered muscles in my arms and legs straining to get me there in time. I took a diving leap and knocked the spoon from her hand just as it touched my son&rsquo;s lips.</p>
<p>After that incident, I put my foot down. No food means no food. Naturally, I arrested her too. Not out of public shame, either. It was the right thing to do, and I&rsquo;d do it again, even if my entire graduating class wasn&rsquo;t there watching me. My wife was a food addict, and she needed treatment. The Food Court judge was lenient and gave her thirty days in Fat Camp, even though I begged him to give her more. And I put junior through a kiddie Fat Camp at my own expense. I wanted to make sure his mother&rsquo;s influence hadn&rsquo;t corrupted his soul.</p>
<p>When they got back a month later, things were better in our house. She apologized, and I felt sure I had cured her of her addiction. There&rsquo;s a lesson here. Hard-core food terrists look and talk and act just like you and me. They could be a friend, a relative, even your spouse. But deep down, in the blackness of their diseased souls, these poor creatures&mdash;like my wife&mdash;hunger for their drug of choice, and nothing you say or do can help them see the truth.</p>
<p>Other than that, it was a good time at the ATFF. I brought my partner Harry Green with me. When I got promoted, I made sure he got promoted too. Loyalty counts for something in this world, I figure. Harry was a friend. Together we led the way in busting illegal grow-ops in the D.C. area&mdash;from huge warehouses full of hydroponic vats growing beans and corn, wheat and rye, down to the grungy college student with a sun lamp and a couple of tomato plants in his closet. It didn&rsquo;t matter. We busted them all.</p>
<p>It was around this time we got the first inkling of a growing menace in our society. Cross-border smuggling soared, flooding our streets with that vilest of drugs, the crack cocaine of food: polished white rice. How did they get it into the country? There were border checks, air-eating sniffer dogs at every port of entry, customs officials whose sole job was to look for and confiscate food. On top of it all, the sniffer dogs died of some unknown wasting disease. For a long time we weren&rsquo;t quite sure what had happened. Then we realized: the dogs had been poisoned.</p>
<p>We detected a master hand at work. Behind all the grow-ops, the smuggling, even the network of Supper Clubs we&rsquo;d been hearing about, stood one man: Fatso, the Godfather of Food. As head of the French Food Mafia, <em>la chôse notre,</em> Fatso controlled 120% of the black market. My partner and I worked feverishly to build a case against him, but time and time again that greasy mafioso slipped through our fingers.</p>
<p>What&rsquo;s that? Supper Clubs are a network of exclusive food labs run by the mafia. Rich connoisseurs get high by candlelight on course after course of elaborately prepared illicit confection. I have to say, I don&rsquo;t get it. Why do addicts pay so much money for this stuff? A calorie is a calorie, and in my book, they&rsquo;re all bad. What&rsquo;s more, these bizarre assemblies require formal dress&mdash;black tie for men, evening gowns for the women. Can someone please explain to me why wealthy food terrists wear tuxedos while consuming addictive caloric substances? Is powdered cleavage necessary for the consumption of these mind-warping and soul-destroying meals? Not to mention the fifteen-piece orchestra. Do heroin addicts insist on chamber music or light jazz in the dark garbage-lined alleys where they shoot up?</p>
<p>You don&rsquo;t have an answer for that, do you? I didn&rsquo;t think so.</p>
<p>How do I know all this? Because I busted a Supper Club once. Got a tipoff from a snitch. Sent a hundred food terrists to Fat Camp, including half a dozen Congressmen. Boy, that was rough. Finding out that not all our honorable gentlemen on Capitol Hill are pure air-eaters rattled my faith in our political system. Thankfully, I soon realized it was an isolated incident, and my enthusiasm for the American way of life&mdash;I mean, the Airitarian way of life&mdash;soon returned to its full measure.</p>
<p>So we barged into this Supper Club, Laxafiers drawn, my TWAT team bringing up the rear. (That&rsquo;s Thin Weapons And Tactics, in case you were curious.) Rumor was Fatso himself would be present. The food terrists gasped when they saw us. The women shrieked. They tried to escape, and would have outrun us, too, what with the performance-enhancing calories they consume. We&rsquo;d anticipated this, however, and blockaded the exits with ATFF fatty wagons.</p>
<p>I remember staring around that ballroom in shock. Lobsters stacked like firewood on every table, the floor littered with their crunchy husks. Buffet tables sagged under the weight of food. Calories on every plate but one.</p>
<p>He reclined in a corner, like some malevolent, clean-shaven <em>maître d&rsquo;</em> in evening attire. Over his head hung a large tapestry of the Battle of Hunger Hill, one of the fiercest battles of the Civil War. Not a shot had been fired. Union forces had starved to death a Confederate garrison that refused to surrender. If only the rebels had known then what we know now about eating air.</p>
<p>In front of the Godfather of Food sat an empty plate. Not even a trace of a calorie. I bagged his plate and silverware as evidence. The lab found nothing. Next to the plate was a glass of water, untouched. An amused smile flickered across the man&rsquo;s lips.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Zo yoo air Agent Froleek, <em>monsieur,&rdquo;</em> he said, his accent strong, like a smelly contraband Roquefort blue cheese.</p>
<p>He came to this country&mdash;and by &ldquo;this country&rdquo; I mean the US of Air, not France, even though I&rsquo;m currently in France&mdash;fifteen years ago and still couldn&rsquo;t speak English good. He had introduced <em>le hamburger &agrave; la Nancy Reagan </em>on the menu of his five-star restaurant here in Paris, only to have a mob of angry chefs attempt to lynch him. The State Department granted him asylum and&mdash;worse for us&mdash;citizenship. We couldn&rsquo;t even deport the food trafficker.</p>
<p>His grin widened. &ldquo;I haf ben lookeeng fore-ward to meeteeng yoo, <em>non?</em> Zay say yoo air zee best <em>agent</em> zee ATFF haz.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Tell it to the judge,&rdquo; I said, and pulled out my handcuffs.</p>
<p>All around us my TWAT team fired laxative darts at stampeding fat people. Where the food terrists fell, an unusual perfume arose. Their poo-poo and pee-pee seeped through their evening clothes and mingled with the still-warm lobster casings. But Fatso seemed uninterested in the scents of justice. In a gesture of unconcern, he interlaced his fingers across his belly. Or tried to. They didn&rsquo;t quite reach.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Yoo air not a seek-air aft-air zee playzh-air, <em>mon ami,&rdquo;</em> he said, his grin still natural and easy. &ldquo;Zat I admi-air. Yoo air not like zeez uzz-airs.&rdquo; He waved a hand at the diners in their finery, piled one upon the other like beached whales at a Japanese barbecue. &ldquo;I seenk not, <em>non?&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>&ldquo;Save your breath,&rdquo; I said, and snapped the handcuffs in his face. &ldquo;Now get up.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He rose slowly to his feet and held out his wrists. &ldquo;Wat eez eet yoo dezi-air most een zees world, Agent Froleek?&rdquo; he asked. &ldquo;Eet eez not zee playzh-air. Eez eet, <em>peut-&ecirc;tre,</em> pow-air? To make zees world a bett-air place?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;My desire,&rdquo; I said, &ldquo;is to put you in Fat Camp.&rdquo; I struggled to loop the cuffs around his wrists.</p>
<p>Fatso&rsquo;s eyes twinkled with mocking amusement. The handcuffs would not click shut. &ldquo;Now zat yoo haf cot mee,&rdquo; he asked, &ldquo;wat weel yoo doo?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I slammed the cuffs back onto my belt. &ldquo;I, along with three hundred million other Americans&mdash;I mean Airitarians&mdash;will celebrate your demise.&rdquo; I drew my weapon. &ldquo;Now don&rsquo;t move.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He looked at me thoughtfully, unmindful of the chaos around us. &ldquo;Yoo seenk eet weel make a <em>difference?&rdquo;</em> he asked. &ldquo;Arresteeng mee, I want to say?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I lifted up the back of his tuxedo jacket with the tip of my Laxafier. &ldquo;Where is your tail? Your horns? Your cleft hooves?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He laughed. &ldquo;I am not zee deveel, Agent Froleek. I am a man, like yore-self. A man on a die-et. I try not to eat zo much, yoo know. But eet eez very deefeecoolt.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You dare compare yourself to me?&rdquo; I stared him down, my face inches from his, until his laughter died. &ldquo;No,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;You are Satan Incarnate. You peddle your illegal substances to children. Children! I hope you never learn to eat air. I hope you starve to death in Fat Camp.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Fatso looked at me for a long moment. He nodded. Almost sadly, it seemed. &ldquo;I am sorree I laf,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Only zat yoo remind me of sum-wun I know.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Suffice it to say, Fatso was out of jail twenty-four hours later. We gave him the standard dose of laxative when we booked him, but his bowels were as clean as a canister of brussel-sprout-flavored air after I&rsquo;d finished with it.</p>
<p>I was there on the courthouse steps when we released him.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Froleek!&rdquo; he said, beaming at me in the spring sunshine. &ldquo;Sank yoo for zees opportooneetee to meet yoo. I want to tell yoo, eef yoo and yore fameelee ev-air haf zee hung-air&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We&rsquo;ll eat air,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Now get lost, Fatso.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Eef yoo ev-air change zee mind&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I won&rsquo;t.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He climbed into his limo. &ldquo;Een zat case, I weesh yoo, <em>bon appet&iacute;t.&rdquo;</em></p>
<p><em>&ldquo;</em><em>Cr&ecirc;pes suzette</em> and <em>beef bourgoignon</em> to you too,&rdquo; I said hotly. &ldquo;Whatever that means.&rdquo; The limo pulled away from the curb. &ldquo;You can&rsquo;t run and you can&rsquo;t hide either!&rdquo; I shouted after him. &ldquo;You&rsquo;re too fat! You hear me? I&rsquo;ll get you if it&rsquo;s the last thing I ever do! Besides dying, that is.&rdquo;</p>
<p>That was a year ago. I hadn&rsquo;t busted a Supper Club since, much less found a crumb of evidence we could use against him. I could only dream of Thanksgiving.</p>
<p>Long since outlawed, Fatso still celebrated that unholy day on the usual Thursday in November, when all the mafia dons came to D.C. for their annual convention. What a coup it would be to interrupt that little shindig! I had been working the streets for months, just trying to find out the location of this year&rsquo;s gathering, but no luck. My snitches didn&rsquo;t know, or if they did, they weren&rsquo;t telling.</p>
<p>But Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Air-Eating Happiness went on as usual. Fatso alone was not enough to stop us. Together we, as a nation, continued our unstoppable rise toward the final stage of human evolution, the destiny the Prophet ordained for us in <em>Food-Free At Last.</em></p>
<p>Then something happened, something so extraordinary that it threatened to bring down everything we built, evict the Prophet from the Thin House and return the food terrists to power. Looking back, I see the hand of the French Secret Service at every step.</p>
<p>It began with a murder.</p>
<p class="chapter">Three</p>
<p>Not just any murder, either. A food dealer got whacked in LaOmelette Park, across the street from the Thin House. And get this: he had a whole pizza with him when he was killed. Can you imagine? A whole pizza? The street price of your basic pepperoni pie these days is what, close to half a million dollars?</p>
<p>Smarty pants. Maybe you can get a genuine Neapolitan just around the corner here in Paris for twenty Euro. That is <em>not</em> something to be proud of. For that matter, you should be ashamed that people walk the streets of this city openly consuming addictive caloric substances. Putting food in their mouths&mdash;and chewing it! Swallowing it, even! You might as well have sex in public!</p>
<p>Oh no. You poor thing. Are you really going to eat that? That croissant? Right here, in front of me? Let me ask you something, sir. Like the Prophet always says. How can I be thin if I&rsquo;m surrounded by fat people like you?</p>
<p>But we can&rsquo;t &ldquo;live and let live,&rdquo; as you put it. We&rsquo;re the United States of Air. Every time a ferrner eats some food, our national security is threatened. Food terrist masterminds like yourself&mdash;well, we&rsquo;ve got a special program to help cure your addiction. It&rsquo;s called &ldquo;extraordinary rendering.&rdquo; They fly you to a special Fat Camp overseas, tie you to a long rotisserie pole and hold you over an open flame, until the fat melts off your body.</p>
<p>Help! Somebody help me! Get him off! By the Prophet&rsquo;s useless colon! Now do you see? This is exactly the kind of behavior caused by food terrism. Anger. Rage. Uncontrollable emotions. All those calories make you crazy. And you can quit your squirming. My bodyguards are going to handcuff you to your chair. That&rsquo;s all. It&rsquo;s for your own good. I can&rsquo;t let you hurt yourself anymore with that crescent-shaped piece of flaky, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth pastry. Corporal! Incinerate this. Make sure no one else suffers because of this Frenchie&rsquo;s addiction.</p>
<p>Now. Where was I? A murder.</p>
<p>The murder that started it all.</p>
<p>It was three in the morning when the call came through.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Get the Twinkie out of your ass and get down here, Frolick,&rdquo; the voice growled.</p>
<p>That&rsquo;s how Captain Brownnose Lickit talks. Same guy who recruited me. You remember. He got promoted.</p>
<p>The first time Cap made a crack about Twinkies, my heart nearly stopped. I thought he knew about my secret shame. But then I realized he talks that way to everyone. With Green it&rsquo;s &ldquo;Get the Slim Jim out of your ass.&rdquo; With a couple of my colleagues it&rsquo;s &ldquo;Get the frozen lasagna out of your ass.&rdquo; There&rsquo;s even a new recruit, Cap says to him, &ldquo;Get the whole wheat bread with tuna fish and olive tapenade out of your ass.&rdquo; Cap&rsquo;s just funny that way, I guess.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I got time for breakfast, sir?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>My wife Chantal groaned and covered her head with a pillow. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s right, baby,&rdquo; she said. &ldquo;You go eat some air.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I put my hand over the mouthpiece. &ldquo;Not now, Oxy,&rdquo; I said. Her pet name is Oxy. Short for &ldquo;oxygen.&rdquo; The sweetest gas that man has ever tasted.</p>
<p>In my ear Cap was saying, &ldquo;Roll your window down and munch some air while you drive. I&rsquo;m calling Green now.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What we got, Cap? Is it bikers with chocolate chip cookies again?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;Or maybe students with some ramen noodles?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Neither. Got a murder for you.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Whoa,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;We don&rsquo;t do murders. You know that.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You do now. Park across the street from the Thin House. Agent Erpent will fill you in.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I frowned in the darkness of our bedroom. &ldquo;Don&rsquo;t know any Erpent, sir. He ATFF?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Skinny Service. You know what that means.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The two words made my heart go thud. &ldquo;The SS?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Like I said. Move.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I moved. I drank a glass of water and chewed some air while I got dressed. Two pairs of long underwear against the November chill, the midriffs cut away. Then my regulation khaki trench coat and white tape measure, as tight as it would go. Promotion in the ATFF, as at all levels of government these days, was based on waistline. Cap was a sixteen, the Under-Secretary for Food Enforcement was a twelve. The Prophet himself was rumored to be a ten.</p>
<p>Before I left, I sat down on the bed. I put a hand on Chantal&rsquo;s shoulder, but she jerked away. &ldquo;Make sure Nathan says his air prayers this morning before school, OK?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Go bust some food terrists,&rdquo; she said in a tone of voice she&rsquo;d been using more and more often these days. I wasn&rsquo;t sure what it meant.</p>
<p>&ldquo;And don&rsquo;t forget to send him off to school with a big air lunch, and an air snack in case he needs a little something extra in between meals.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We haven&rsquo;t had a decent meal in months!&rdquo; she cried into her pillow. &ldquo;Why can&rsquo;t you get us something real to eat for a change?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I sighed. &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t have time for this right now, Oxy. Pray for strength. Pray for faith. Remember, Happiness is Eating Air. We&rsquo;ll talk more tonight.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Her bony forearms beat at her pillow. Maybe it was lumpy. But no time now to think about new bedding. Cap needed me. Our nation needed me. The human race, desperate for alternatives to food addiction, needed me.</p>
<p>I was out the front door as quick as it took me to limp there. I crawled down the walk and climbed into my Smart Car. I started the engine, listened to it putter and pulled away from the curb. I rolled the window down like Cap suggested, and savored that early morning road air. Pollution with a faint tang of dead leaves. I pondered dessert but decided I&rsquo;d been glutton enough for one day.</p>
<p>On the way, I passed one of the new billboards the government had been putting up to combat French propaganda. A mile wide and a quarter mile tall, it depicted a chubby little boy with a toothless grin and the words &ldquo;You&rsquo;re not starving to death. You just need to believe. Go the Power of Air!&rdquo;</p>
<p>I pulled up in front of Green&rsquo;s house and beeped the horn. He was just coming off two weeks of compassionate leave. Something wrong with his daughter, apparently. Although he refused to tell me what it was.</p>
<p>He was a long time in coming out. I puzzled again over the orders to investigate a murder. The last time I was on homicide detail, I didn&rsquo;t solve a single case. Was I really the right man for the job?</p>
<p>To distract myself, I turned on the radio to the All Air Station&mdash;&ldquo;all static, all the time, the sound of the airwaves coming at you&rdquo;&mdash;and let that relaxing crackle soothe my soul. Several minutes passed. I was about to honk again, when he stumbled out of the house, wiping tears from his eyes. He got into the car and slammed the door.</p>
<p>My first thought was that his wife had made him taco air for lunch. But then he slouched back into his seat and sobbed into his hands.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s eating you?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Just drive.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I put the car into gear and stepped on the gas. I was still getting used to the Smart Car. It was a bit like driving a lawnmower.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Roll a window down or something,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Have some breakfast.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I&rsquo;m not hungry,&rdquo; he mumbled through his fingers.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Suit yourself.&rdquo;</p>
<p>We rode in silence for a while. Tears poured down his cheeks like molten chocolate in a candy bar commercial. Before they banned candy bars, that is. He glanced at me from time to time, like he wanted to say something, but couldn&rsquo;t make up his mind how or when to say it.</p>
<p>We&rsquo;d been through a lot together, Harry and I. I trusted him with my life. And I&rsquo;d never seen him like this before. I touched his elbow.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Is it your daughter?&rdquo; I asked as gently as I could. &ldquo;Melissa?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He nodded, but said nothing.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What do the doctors say?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We took her to a bunch of different specialists. I don&rsquo;t know why we bothered. They said there was nothing wrong with her. As healthy as a sixteen-year-old girl can be.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Well, what&rsquo;s the problem then?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;She won&rsquo;t eat. Hasn&rsquo;t touched food in months.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I smacked the steering wheel with the palm of my hand. &ldquo;Good for her,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;You must be very proud.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He turned to me and frowned. &ldquo;How do you mean?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Kids these days. Most people would kill to have a daughter like that. Not sneaking around after curfew, hanging out with the wrong kinds of boys, getting high off an illicit Snickers or Mars Bar in the back seat of some lowlife&rsquo;s car.&rdquo; I pulled onto the freeway, floored the Smart Car and putted along in the slow lane. &ldquo;She were my daughter, I&rsquo;d take her to Air Temple on Sunday and raise my voice in praise of the Prophet for bringing me such a wonderful child.&rdquo;</p>
<p>During the Prophet&rsquo;s campaign for President, he had nicknamed Fat Boy Burgers &ldquo;The Church of Fat.&rdquo; Since then, all the franchises&mdash;the Golden F&rsquo;s&mdash;had been turned into Air Temples. We went there every Sunday to listen to the Prophet&rsquo;s weekly address and to eat air in communion with others.</p>
<p>Green looked at me for a long moment. &ldquo;Yes,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I suppose you have a point.&rdquo; He sat back in his seat and stared out the window.</p>
<p>I can usually read his moods. &ldquo;There&rsquo;s something else, isn&rsquo;t there?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He sighed. &ldquo;We did find someone who could give us a diagnosis.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What did he say?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Except he&rsquo;s not exactly a doctor.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What is he, then?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;A naturopath.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I nearly slammed the car into a telephone pole. &ldquo;One of those quacks?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I know, I used to think the same. But Dr. Stummick really knows what he&rsquo;s talking about. Thing is, though, he&rsquo;s proposing a radical treatment. I can&rsquo;t convince Melissa to take her medicine.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s he suggesting?&rdquo;</p>
<p>My partner shook his head. &ldquo;Says the only way for her to get any better is to start eating again. You know. Food.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I brayed with laughter. &ldquo;Some doctor,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Maybe she needs another stint in Fat Camp. Strengthen her faith.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Stummick says if we do that, she&rsquo;ll starve to death.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Quack quack,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Quack quack.&rdquo; I glanced over at Harry, but he wasn&rsquo;t laughing. &ldquo;Look. Take her to the beach for a week. That salty sea air?&rdquo; I smacked my lips. &ldquo;Yum, yum.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s just it,&rdquo; Harry said. &ldquo;She eats air all the time. Eighteen hours a day. But she keeps getting skinnier and skinnier.&rdquo; He shifted in his seat. &ldquo;I was hoping you might talk to her.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And congratulate her on eating air?&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Sure, if you want me to.&rdquo; Like the Prophet always says, you can never be too rich or too thin.</p>
<p>Green coughed into the back of his hand. &ldquo;Actually I was hoping you&rsquo;d tell her it&rsquo;s OK to eat food.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I wagged a finger at him. &ldquo;You are such a joker!&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s why I love working with you, Harry. You crack me up.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Watch out!&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Red light!&rdquo;</p>
<p>I looked up in time to bring the car to a halt. A motorcycle traffic cop gave us a friendly wave. The Prophet had installed red lights at random intervals on the Beltway to increase revenue from traffic fines.</p>
<p>Harry blew his nose, a long, wet sound.</p>
<p>&ldquo;This is really hitting you hard, isn&rsquo;t it?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He fiddled with the end of his tape measure. &ldquo;Can I ask you something? Off the record? One old friend to another?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I got your back, partner,&rdquo; I said solemnly. &ldquo;You know I do.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He lowered his head. &ldquo;You believe in the Prophet.&rdquo; It wasn&rsquo;t a question.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sure I do. You remember me from before, right?&rdquo; I held out my hands, mimed the huge belly I used to have.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You wanted to be thin.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We both did, Harry.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And the Prophet helped us do that.&rdquo; He whispered the words.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The Prophet promised, Harry. And he delivered. Food is a drug. Air is all we need.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And you never&hellip;that is&hellip;,&rdquo; he said, avoiding my gaze. &ldquo;You never eat?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sure I do.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You&hellip;you do?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Of course! Air. Every day.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I mean, you never eat food?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I thought of the secret shame in my ankle holster. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m sorry?&rdquo; I said, pretending to have misheard. &ldquo;Did you say, eat <em>food?&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>The blast of a truck&rsquo;s horn sounded behind us. The light was green. I revved the Smart Car&rsquo;s engine and rolled across the intersection.</p>
<p>&ldquo;But you&rsquo;ve never wondered?&rdquo; Harry continued.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Wondered what?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What if, you know, the Prophet&rsquo;s wrong? About eating air, I mean?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are you,&rdquo; I said, joking, &ldquo;some kind of food terrist?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He turned toward me. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m serious, Frolick. In the three years since the Prophet banned food, have you really never eaten? Anything?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Here I have a confession to make. I am ashamed to admit this, but you have to understand my struggle if you want to understand what happened next.</p>
<p>Every night I would go down to my basement. Unlock my walk-in vault. My Twinkie vault. I didn&rsquo;t want to go. But I could hear them. Singing. Who can resist that siren song? I&rsquo;d sit there on the floor, mouth agape, listening to their bewitching melody as they flew about the room.</p>
<p>Some nights they were gentle with me. Other nights were not so good.</p>
<p>They&rsquo;d attack in swarms, forcing themselves into my mouth, down my throat and into my stomach. And if I tried to stop them, they&rsquo;d turn kamikaze, slamming into my face, splattering me with their sticky white guts. I&rsquo;d black out, and when I woke up later, I&rsquo;d find myself surrounded by dozens of their plastic cocoons.</p>
<p>They could smell my weakness of faith, I finally realized. I tried to get rid of them. I did. Over and over again. I&rsquo;d be halfway to the garbage bin when the box would burst open and the shimmer of Twinkie wings would cast flickering shadows on the floor of my garage. I&rsquo;d chase after them with a butterfly net, but a flying Twinkie is hard to catch. And every time they&rsquo;d lead me back down to the basement. To their nest. Their home. What else could I do? My faith was weak. I let them stay.</p>
<p>Is that so? You think I&rsquo;m crazy, do you? I&rsquo;ve got an easy answer for that one. Corporal? Yes. The duct tape. Please. There&rsquo;s no point in struggling, <em>monn serr.</em> I think you French are crazy too. But when I&rsquo;m finished I&rsquo;ll give you back your precious news show and you can say whatever you want. Like all Americans&mdash;I mean Airitarians&mdash;freedom of speech is something I value highly.</p>
<p>So to go back to Harry&rsquo;s question: had I really never eaten any food? In three years?</p>
<p>No. Not unless you counted being brutally violated by a gang of savage flying Twinkies, who repeatedly penetrate you orally against your wishes. Like so many rape victims, I felt ashamed. As if it were my fault. My only consolation was that these depraved pastries died in the act. They&rsquo;d force themselves down my throat, only to commit suicide and litter the graveyard of my stomach with their acid-burned cake-dough husks. How could Green ever understand my torment?</p>
<p>I swerved to avoid a car pulling into traffic.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Of course I don&rsquo;t eat food,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;What kind of question is that? They&rsquo;d have my badge and tape measure for sure.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He sat sideways, looking at me from under his eyebrows. It was like he could guess.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Faith alert! Faith alert!&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;You&rsquo;re doubting again, Harry.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He slumped back into his seat. &ldquo;You&rsquo;re right.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I know I&rsquo;m right. Your doubt is affecting your daughter&rsquo;s digestion. Her ability to metabolize air.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I know, I know.&rdquo; Fresh tears drenched his cheeks.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Maybe you should go see one of the ATFF Faith Officers. They can help you.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Now there&rsquo;s a thought,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Go tell the snitches I&rsquo;m a doubter. Get a permanent black mark on my record.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s more important?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;The fleeting details of this stage of evolution? Or everlasting peace in the Prophet&rsquo;s bosom on a higher plane of human existence, for you and your family?&rdquo; I reached over and squeezed his knee. &ldquo;You&rsquo;ve got to believe in His Will. Otherwise you got nothing.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He turned away. &ldquo;Sometimes I wish I&rsquo;d never heard of the Prophet.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Harry!&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;How can you say such a thing?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He covered his face with his hands and sobbed in silence. The radio filled the gap between us. The rogue Twinkie in my ankle holster fluttered its wings against my calf, fueled by Harry&rsquo;s treasonous remark. Not an hour ago it had climbed up my trousers and perched against my calf. I had tried to dislodge it, but my faith wasn&rsquo;t strong enough.</p>
<p>It began to hum. No, please. Not here. Not now. I turned up the radio to drown out the sound. The wings trembled and went still. I let out a deep breath. Then Green said:</p>
<p>&ldquo;So the new warehouse rules haven&rsquo;t affected you at all?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I flushed just thinking of that scandal. Top brass tried to hush it up, but word got around. In the same way the DEA keeps depositories of impounded cocaine and marijuana until they can be destroyed, the ATFF runs a network of evidence warehouses full of confiscated food. A couple of our brothers-in-air had been caught consuming evidence.</p>
<p>I said, &ldquo;How would that affect&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>But a public service announcement broke into the static. The deep baritone that did all the PSAs intoned:</p>
<p>&ldquo;Dangerous food terrists lurk on every corner. Hiding in the shadows, ready to corrupt your children with addictive caloric substances. Fat People tempting your young ones away from the Path of Air with candy bars, sugary treats, bowls of lentils and corn! Fat People are a menace to our national security. Remember, if you see Fat, say Fat.&rdquo; An old woman screeched: &ldquo;Fat! There&rsquo;s a fat man! Over there! In the parking lot! And he&rsquo;s armed with a corn dog!&rdquo; The baritone voice returned: &ldquo;Remember, if you see Fat, say Fat. Call 1-800-I-SEE-FAT. That&rsquo;s 1-800-I-S-E-E-F-A-T. This message has been brought to you by the Dietitian General. Go the Power of Air.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The welcome hiss of static returned. I gripped the steering wheel as tight as I could, trying to block out the humming coming from my leg.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Of course the new rules haven&rsquo;t affected me, silly,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;I have electric heating.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Everyone takes food home with them. It saves the government money on its fuel bill. Rather than leave the food to be destroyed on Burn Day, agents would take home cases of contraband to incinerate in their own furnaces. In fact, so high-minded were most ATFF agents that there was rarely any food left to destroy when Burn Day came around.</p>
<p>So when I first heard of the scandal, I was sure there had been a mistake. We were the ATFF. How was it possible that people I worked with every day were food terrists? But the videos of them at home consuming the contraband material&mdash;and worse, giving it to their wives and children&mdash;could not be explained away.</p>
<p>I worried what would happen to my flock at home. The Twinkies were asexual. I had observed their social interaction with the care of a field biologist, and come to the conclusion that they were sterile. Not once did I see them mate or give birth. Because of their suicidal tendencies, they were constantly after me, beating their wings against my head, demanding new playmates. On occasion I had brought home confiscated Twinkies to replenish their nest. Sometimes I felt like I was the one living in the dungeon, not them.</p>
<p>I took a deep breath, let it out slowly.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The Bureau&rsquo;s counting calories,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;Making sure not a single one goes missing.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Good,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;What they should have done in the first place. Makes the rest of us look like deviant food-swilling scum when a few bad apples get caught with their hands in the cookie jar.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The Twinkie cleared its throat and sang:</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;Apples, apples! Cookies, cookies!&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>I hissed, &ldquo;Stop it! Quiet! Stop singing, you!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I&rsquo;m sorry?&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;I wasn&rsquo;t singing.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What? Oh. I was just talking to the radio. You know, that crazy singing static.&rdquo; I forced a laugh.</p>
<p>My partner looked at me strangely, but let it go. Phew. That was a close one.</p>
<p>I pulled up behind half a dozen D.C. cruisers&mdash;also Smart Cars&mdash;blocking the street, and killed the engine. The radio static died, and with it, my faith. If I wasn&rsquo;t careful there&rsquo;d be an impromptu Twinkie concert in the park.</p>
<p>Green reached for the door handle. &ldquo;So what do you think I should do?&rdquo; he asked. &ldquo;About Melissa.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I don&rsquo;t want to get involved, Harry,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Too many cooks spoil the broth.&rdquo;</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;</em><em>Yummy broth! Broth-ey broth!&rdquo; </em>the Twinkie sang.</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;Maybe gruel? Is that so cruel?</em></p>
<p><em>With a spud. Half a spud.</em></p>
<p><em>A rotten spud. Any old crud!&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>I pressed my eyelids shut. <em>Go away. Leave me alone. Why can&rsquo;t you leave me in peace?</em></p>
<p>Harry opened the door but didn&rsquo;t get out. &ldquo;You sure I can&rsquo;t convince you to talk to her? Explain to her how things really are?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I shook my head. I could not bring myself to look at him. &ldquo;If my family can do it, so can yours.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I thought of Chantal&rsquo;s rapid turnaround after the incident at my graduation, after she got out of Fat Camp. I&rsquo;d come home after a hard day&rsquo;s work busting food terrists, and she and Nathan and I, we&rsquo;d sit around the dinner table and chew some air for a while. He&rsquo;d tell me about his day at school, the fat kids taken away by ATFF riot squads, the skinny kids who collapsed on the playground and got to suck on vanilla oxygen for the rest of the day. Chantal would kiss me on the cheek and tell me how she had a wonderful perfume lunch with the girls, really exquisite the flavors of air. After dinner I&rsquo;d do imitations of Fatso to scare Nathan with.</p>
<p>I take my responsibility as a father seriously. It&rsquo;s important to teach your children the right values.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Ho ho ho. I&rsquo;m Fatso, the fat man drug baron. Look at me, come to ruin your lives. Candy, little girl? Chocolates, little boy? Once you&rsquo;re hooked on food, you&rsquo;ll never be able to stop. And I&rsquo;ll make lots of money selling you dime bags of rice and dried legumes, a dozen beans to the bag. Mwoo-hwoo-wah-hah! I am evil incarnate! I am a Frenchman food dealer! Be very, very afraid! Boo!&rdquo;</p>
<p>My wife and son would collapse in giggles. We were a happy family in those days. Back before what happened, happened.</p>
<p>What&rsquo;s that? No, I&rsquo;m fine. Really. Just a bit of runny nose is all.</p>
<p>So we sat there in the car, the glow of the Thin House glorious across the street. I took the keys from the ignition. Green put his hand on my arm. &ldquo;This conversation never took place. Right, old friend?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sure, Harry. You know me.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He slapped me on the back. &ldquo;Good ol&rsquo; Frolick.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He got out of the car and closed the door.</p>
<p>I sat there for a moment, collecting my thoughts. Faith: be strong! I believe! I do! Aid me now in my time of struggle, O Mine Prophet, please! The Twinkie song subsided. But for how long?</p>
<p>I would have to keep an eye on Harry. I was worried about my partner. Talking about naturopaths, giving food to his daughter. Faith was essential to survival. Essential to eating air. The tiniest speck of doubt could unleash a swarm of suicidal Twinkie rapists. To someone unaccustomed to their ways, this could destroy a man.</p>
<p>For the first time in our long partnership, I was unsure of Harry. Of his loyalty. Of his values. I would have to give him all the encouragement I could. And, if necessary, report him. If his faith was weak, it could affect my own digestion, and that of everyone he came in contact with. He would be a menace to society as long as his doubt lasted. It might be necessary to send him to Fat Camp again.</p>
<p>For his own good.</p>
<p class="chapter">Four</p>
<p>We&rsquo;re what? Out of time?</p>
<p>Yes, I know the show&rsquo;s called <em>Soixante-Neuf Minutes.</em> What&rsquo;s that got to do with the price of air in Kansas? I come bringing salvation to the French people, and you want to cut me off when I&rsquo;ve barely gotten started?</p>
<p>Corporal? Take out your gun and hold it to the Frenchie&rsquo;s head. Like that. Excellent.</p>
<p>This broadcast continues. Anyone moves, anyone tries to end this transmission, and fattie here gets it.</p>
<p>We clear?</p>
<p>It was 4 a.m. by the time Green and I got to the scene of the crime. We crunched across the dead grass of the park, stepping over the rotting tree limbs that blocked our path. Remnants of the Air Force&rsquo;s herbicide spraying campaign. Half a dozen cops huddled around the body. They hid their hands behind their backs when they saw us.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Well if it isn&rsquo;t Agent Frolick and his sidekick Agent Green.&rdquo; A homicide dick by the name of Sergeant Thinn hooked one thumb between his belt and his belly. &ldquo;What are you doing here, anyway? You&rsquo;ve never solved a murder in your life.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Top brass put us on the case,&rdquo; I said, with justifiable pride. &ldquo;Guess we&rsquo;re better than you thought.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s the last case you solved?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I puffed out my chest. &ldquo;Busted a ring of housewives selling homemade apple pies.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And who you calling sidekick, fat man?&rdquo; Green added, jabbing Thinn in the stomach with a finger.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It ain&rsquo;t illegal to be fat,&rdquo; Thinn said. &ldquo;The Air Congress passed a law. Remember?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You mean <em>Hoe v. Spade?&rdquo;</em> I asked. &ldquo;That wasn&rsquo;t Air Congress. That was the Supreme Food Court.&rdquo;</p>
<p>After the Amendment passed, roaming patrols herded fatties aboard buses and onto box cars to take them to Fat Camp. But an obese woman, a plaintiff by the name of Phood Hoe, sued the deputy assistant sheriff&rsquo;s assistant&rsquo;s deputy who arrested her. She claimed to be an early convert to the Prophet&rsquo;s words. She wasn&rsquo;t fat. She was swollen with excess oxygen from eating so much air.</p>
<p>In their landmark decision, the Court agreed. Being fat was not a crime. It was only consumption of food that was illegal. We could arrest a fattie on suspicion and feed them laxatives, but if their bowels were empty we had to let them go. That was when the Air Congress set up the Food Courts. Although what we were doing giving terrists due process and trying them in court was beyond me.</p>
<p>Thinn produced a paper bag from behind his back. He held up a hamburger and took a big bite. &ldquo;Whatever. Anyway, it&rsquo;s about time you got here. Or were you too busy eating air?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Never too busy to eat air,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Still on your methadone, I see?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He was munching on a zero-calorie burger and thick-cut zero-calorie fries. I knew the food was zero-calorie because I asked him once and he told me. It still amazes me, though, how fat he was for eating nothing but zero-calorie burgers all day long.</p>
<p>A young cop turned to Thinn. Name tag read &ldquo;J. Olde.&rdquo; His red, puffy eyes marked him as a rookie. Too much taco air. &ldquo;Gosh,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Didn&rsquo;t know you were a heroin addict, Sarge.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Thinn swallowed and rattled his paper bag. &ldquo;This is a zero-calorie burger, fries and milkshake combo. Like we eat every day? Maybe you should join the team, Olde.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Just gotta be different, don&rsquo;t you,&rdquo; said a second cop, name of Nice. Mean-looking. &ldquo;Why can&rsquo;t you eat at Fatso&rsquo;s Diner like the rest of us?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Fatso!&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Not our evil foe?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Thinn licked mustard from his lips. &ldquo;Different Fatso. No relation.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Gee whillickers,&rdquo; Olde said. &ldquo;Zero calories? I&rsquo;ve never heard of such a thing. How come you never mentioned it before?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are they made out of, anyway?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Processed air,&rdquo; Thinn said. &ldquo;Olde here is from California. Raw foodie.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Jeez, Sarge,&rdquo; the rookie said. &ldquo;No need to make fun. Just &rsquo;cause I prefer my air unprocessed.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I fist-bumped the rookie. &ldquo;You go, girl,&rdquo; I said.</p>
<p>Thinn waved a French fry in my face. &ldquo;Processed air is pretty tasty. Sure you don&rsquo;t want one? Zero calories?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green trembled at my side. &ldquo;Don&rsquo;t mind if I do.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I slapped his hand away. &ldquo;Watch it, sidekick.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The fry fell to the ground, and three of the cops dove for it. Their heads collided on the dead grass. From the heap of groans Officer Nice emerged, fry held aloft in triumph.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s the matter with you?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;Don&rsquo;t you ever eat air?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sure we do,&rdquo; Thinn said, his mouth full. &ldquo;In between three square meals, a doughnut run and a midnight snack.&rdquo; He turned to the others. &ldquo;All zero-calorie, of course.&rdquo;</p>
<p>They laughed.</p>
<p>I reddened. &ldquo;If it&rsquo;s good enough for the Prophet, it&rsquo;s good enough for me.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Their laughter stopped. I pressed home my advantage.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s our job to be role models,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;What kind of example does this give our young people? From a distance it&rsquo;s hard to tell the difference between one of your burgers and an illegal one. I realize your food has zero calories, and is therefore exempt from the Amendment&rsquo;s prohibition of addictive caloric substances, but it could easily be misunderstood by a young person who didn&rsquo;t know any better. This is why it&rsquo;s so important that we&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Partner mine.&rdquo; A tug on my sleeve.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What is it?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green nodded at the body on the ground. &ldquo;Save it for Air Temple.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Ah, Air Temple. Sunday was my favorite day of the week. Attendance at Air Temple was mandatory, but I would go every day if I could. Sometimes they even let me deliver a guest sermon, but my favorite was the air-eating competitions the Faith Officers organized&mdash;how I would gulp down those scrumptious gaseous molecules! Then there was the obligatory group confessional, when citizens were encouraged to turn in local food terrists&mdash;their neighbors, relatives and friends. In practice this meant people giving each other free vacations. The accused party would fall to their knees, confess hysterically and pretend to beg forgiveness. Slackers. They&rsquo;d rather take it easy in Fat Camp than go to the office every day like the rest of us working stiffs.</p>
<p>Green snapped his fingers in front of my face. I forced myself back into the present.</p>
<p>&ldquo;We&rsquo;re here for him,&rdquo; my partner said. &ldquo;Remember?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I knelt down over the corpse. &ldquo;Poor thing.&rdquo;</p>
<p>All thoughts of the sermon I was about to deliver disappeared. The body lay face down in a puddle of blood. A pizza box stood empty at his side. I touched his hand. Cold. Wet. I held up my fingers to the light. Flecks of half-digested mushroom, green pepper, onion, pepperoni, tomato sauce and cheese. The corpse was covered in vomit. A tremendous feeling of sorrow and pity crashed over me.</p>
<p>&ldquo;If only he&rsquo;d been given a chance to go to Fat Camp,&rdquo; I lamented. &ldquo;Maybe then he wouldn&rsquo;t have turned to a life of crime.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green bent down next to the corpse and bared the dead man&rsquo;s right forearm. There on the hairless skin above the wrist glowed a blue tattoo: nine digits, separated by two dashes. &ldquo;555-66-1212.&rdquo; His social security number. Green took out a scanner and swept the bar code below the numbers.</p>
<p>&ldquo;According to this, he&rsquo;s been in Fat Camp half a dozen times already,&rdquo; he announced. &ldquo;Four convictions for possession, one for distribution and one for stealing candy from a baby. Claimed its mother missed a payment on her installment plan, and was only repossessing what was already his.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;A real hard case,&rdquo; Thinn grunted, and stuffed more burger into his mouth. &ldquo;Why couldn&rsquo;t he just eat air like the rest of us?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I held up my vomit-covered hands to the sky in despair. &ldquo;What if the seventh time was all he needed?&rdquo; I beseeched the heavens. &ldquo;Now he&rsquo;ll never have a chance to eat air. To learn how to transcend the body and become pure spirit.&rdquo; Hot tears coursed down my cheeks. &ldquo;He was just an innocent kid, corrupted by the mafia. They probably held his family hostage to make him do their dirty work.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Thinn spat. &ldquo;Whoever did this, did us a favor. One less junkie dealer on the streets.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;How can you say that?&rdquo; I grabbed the scanner from Green&rsquo;s hands, skimmed the man&rsquo;s bio. Name: Nick Hungry. Born: Pepperoniville, Pennsylvania, July 4, 1984. &ldquo;Says right here he&rsquo;s got seven younger brothers and sisters.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So?&rdquo; Thinn demanded.</p>
<p>I skimmed some more. &ldquo;His father&rsquo;s dead, too.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Again. So?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So?&rdquo; I was aghast at his insensitivity. &ldquo;Maybe he still believes in that old-fashioned garbage about &lsquo;being the breadwinner&rsquo; and &lsquo;bringing home the bacon.&rsquo;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So what if he does?&rdquo;</p>
<p>What can you do with a man like Thinn? A heart of stone. I sighed. &ldquo;All I&rsquo;m saying is, I feel sorry for him.&rdquo; I turned back to the dead body. &ldquo;You hear me?&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;I feel sorry for you. I do. Me. If only you had let us help you. Whether you wanted us to or not. We could have cured you. Made you better.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Behind me, my partner stamped his feet. &ldquo;You feel sorry for all the criminals we arrest, Frolick.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I wiped away a tear. &ldquo;They are poor misguided souls who don&rsquo;t know any better,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;They deserve our pity.&rdquo;</p>
<p>A flashlight clicked on, illuminating dead Mr. Hungry&rsquo;s emaciated frame.</p>
<p>&ldquo;So you want the run-down or don&rsquo;t you?&rdquo; Thinn asked, sucking noisily on his milkshake.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Tell us what you know,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;So we can find his killer. Whoever it was who deprived this poor boy of the right to eat air, to soar on the wings the Prophet gave our souls, to know that&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Excellent, Frolick,&rdquo; my partner said. &ldquo;Another fine sermon for Air Temple this Sunday. Now can you let the man talk?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Thinn slurped at the remains of his milkshake, tossed it in a nearby garbage can. &ldquo;So,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;911 gets a call at 1:26 a.m. Muffled male voice. Sounds like he has a cold.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Phone trace?&rdquo; Green had his notebook out, pen poised.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Pay phone not far from here.&rdquo; He indicated the opposite corner of the park, gulped what was left of his burger. &ldquo;Said he&rsquo;d seen a murder taking place. Food deal gone bad.&rdquo;</p>
<p>As Thinn narrated the crime scene, his mouth still full of food, flecks of zero-calorie beef rained down on my face.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Cruiser responded to the 911 call,&rdquo; he said, struggling to enunciate. &ldquo;Done a thorough search of the park. No murder weapon, no other clues.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We&rsquo;ll be the judge of that,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>The flashlight traced each limb of the dead dealer. Someone had eaten the entire pizza and then vomited it over his victim. But why? And who would do such a thing?</p>
<p>Green dipped a finger in the vomit, touched the liquid to his lips. I did the same, and quickly spat it out in horror. I looked at Green.</p>
<p>He nodded. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s uncut,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Pure. This was a special order. Probably cost close to a million dollars.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I spat again, trying to get the taste out of my mouth. &ldquo;Maybe a million and a half.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I was a walking encyclopedia on the ways Fatso diluted his product. He was known for putting fillers in his pizza&mdash;edible plastics, fine sand, chalk dust, anything to water down the value. It was extraordinary to find someone buying an uncut pizza. This was a serious addict with no shortage of cash.</p>
<p>Thinn shrugged. &ldquo;Some punk got lucky.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I rolled my eyes. &ldquo;Come on, Thinn,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;You&rsquo;ve got almost twenty years in homicide. You think some punk did this?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Like you say, Special Agent. I got almost twenty years. Plan on taking my pension and going someplace warm. And I know which way the wind is blowing.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I held a still-wet finger in the air. &ldquo;North-north-east, I&rsquo;d say. Maybe six, seven knots. Rain tomorrow, or the next day. Although I&rsquo;m not sure how that helps us.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Special Agent Weatherman,&rdquo; Nice cackled.</p>
<p>Thinn coughed into his fist. &ldquo;Besides,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;You don&rsquo;t even know that this was Fatso&rsquo;s pizza.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green cleared his throat. &ldquo;Yes, we do.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Oh yeah?&rdquo; Thinn said. &ldquo;How&rsquo;s that?&rdquo;</p>
<p>My partner held up the pizza box with the tip of his pen. Emblazoned across the vomit-stained cardboard were the words &ldquo;Fatso&rsquo;s Pizza.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So what?&rdquo; Thinn said. &ldquo;Maybe it was the Sicilians whacked the guy. Wanting a piece of the action.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Fatso&rsquo;s got an iron grip on the pizza trade,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Remember last summer when the Colombian cartels tried to muscle their way in with that pizza lab over in Georgetown?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Got muscled out, as I recall,&rdquo; my partner chuckled. &ldquo;Car bomb, wasn&rsquo;t it?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I heard about that,&rdquo; Officer Olde said, but fell silent at a glance from his sergeant.</p>
<p>&ldquo;So someone&rsquo;s trying again,&rdquo; Thinn said, shoving fries into his mouth. &ldquo;Knock over a pizza dealer, start a war. A mafia hit.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Then why,&rdquo; I asked him, holding my vomit-coated finger under his nose, &ldquo;would a hit man proceed to eat a million dollars&rsquo; worth of pizza, and then vomit it all over his victim?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;How should I know?&rdquo; Thinn asked. &ldquo;Maybe he got food poisoning or something. Overdosed. Who knows why these crazed food terrists do what they do.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;They hate us for our freedom,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Our freedom to eat air. That&rsquo;s why, and you know it.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You know what I&rsquo;m thinking, partner mine?&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>I groaned. &ldquo;Not more of your cynicism.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He held out a hand. &ldquo;Hear me out. It isn&rsquo;t called the District of Crap for nothing.&rdquo; The high levels of fecal material in our capital&rsquo;s sewers had given it that nickname.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are you suggesting?&rdquo; Thinn asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Corruption. What else?&rdquo; my partner said. &ldquo;The pizza was a bribe.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;None of our politicians are corrupt,&rdquo; I said hotly. &ldquo;How can you say such a thing?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green covered his mouth with his hand. &ldquo;What about Ed Ibble, the judge? What happened last week?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That was an accident,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;He fell asleep with his head over a cheesecake. Of course his mouth was full of food.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Well what was he doing with a cheesecake in the first place?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Why was Green always so obtuse? It was like talking to a brick wall sometimes.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Taking it to be destroyed. Obviously. See this is your problem, Harry,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;You&rsquo;re always so negative. You see food crime everywhere.&rdquo;</p>
<p>My partner scrunched up his face. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s because it&rsquo;s there to see!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No. It&rsquo;s not,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Tell me something. Eating food is what causes crime&mdash;what causes food terrism. Right? So how can there be corruption when everyone is eating air?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He stared at me for a moment, dumbfounded by the truth of this insight. Finally he said, &ldquo;Then how come you and I still got jobs?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He was trying to turn me into a jaded cynic like himself, but I wasn&rsquo;t going to let him. &ldquo;There are occasional&hellip;anomalies,&rdquo; I admitted. &ldquo;Perversions of the norm. These people need to be educated. Taught that the way to happiness lies in following the Prophet&rsquo;s air-only diet. It is my hope that one day soon we will both be out of a job.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green cocked an eyebrow. &ldquo;Because they fire us?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Harry,&rdquo; I said, and laid a hand on his shoulder. &ldquo;I love you like a brother, but sarcasm does not become you. When no more food terrists remain to threaten our national security, a day that is coming soon, then our jobs will no longer be needed.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Frolick&rsquo;s got a point, you know,&rdquo; Thinn said, jamming the last of his fries in his mouth.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You think so?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sure. Since the Amendment passed, D.C.&rsquo;s become a corruption-free zone. I was just saying that down at the station the other day. Wasn&rsquo;t I, boys?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You was saying exactly that, Sarge,&rdquo; Officer Nice said.</p>
<p>I held my palms out wide. &ldquo;You see?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green crossed his arms. &ldquo;Alright then. I&rsquo;m open to suggestions. Who would do such a thing? A bulimic stick-up artist who picked the wrong guy?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I shook my head. &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t know. I&rsquo;ve never seen anything like it.&rdquo; I turned to look across the street at the Thin House lit up by floodlights. To think that purity could live so close to crimes like this. &ldquo;Only thing I&rsquo;m sure of is that I don&rsquo;t like it.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Neither does the Prophet,&rdquo; said a voice from the shadows.</p>
<p>I was on my feet before the voice finished speaking, Laxafier in hand. Green, at my side, had his out too.</p>
<p>The owner of the voice stepped into the light. The cops swallowed hastily and hid their burger bags. Except for Thinn, who seemed surprisingly unconcerned. Green and I holstered our weapons. I forced myself to relax.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Jumpy,&rdquo; the man said. He grinned, his face a death&rsquo;s-head mask in the light of the streetlamp. &ldquo;Aren&rsquo;t we?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I stiffened my spine, flung my palm out at an angle. &ldquo;Go the Power of Air!&rdquo; I shouted.</p>
<p>The others did the same.</p>
<p>He wore the black trench coat and red tape measure of the Skinny Service. He flipped open his badge, but I didn&rsquo;t bother to check it. His fourteen-inch waist said it all.</p>
<p>He returned our salute with a limp hand. &ldquo;Go the Power of Air,&rdquo; he said in a bored tone of voice.</p>
<p>When the Prophet took office, he transferred the old Secret Service to the FBI&rsquo;s counterfeiting division, and hired a new squad of intensely loyal, super skinny bodyguards. You had to have at most a fifteen-inch waist just to get an interview. I should know. I had been bombarding their office with my resum&eacute; for the last two years. It had been my dream from the beginning to work for them. To report directly to the Prophet in the Trapezoidal Office itself. But no matter how hard I tried, I could not get my waistline under eighteen inches. I&rsquo;m sure many of you out there can sympathize with my struggle. I even tried eating less air. Nothing worked.</p>
<p>What&rsquo;s that? The Prophet redesigned the shape of his office so that it would no longer be in the same shape as the food paraphernalia known in street lingo as &ldquo;platters,&rdquo; which were often in the form of an oval.</p>
<p>Now the SS were the best of the best, the thinnest of the thin. We called them the Unpinchables. As in, &ldquo;can&rsquo;t pinch an inch.&rdquo; Their job was to protect the Prophet. It was also to root out corruption at all levels of government. This, despite the theoretical impossibility of such anomalies. The ATFF and Food Bureau of Investigation went after food dealers and grow-ops, and, increasingly, organized food crime. The SS went after people like Judge Ibble with his cheesecake&mdash;although I still think they were wrong about that one. Also district attorneys taking burrito bribes, even the occasional ATFF man caught with a single Tic Tac in his shoe.</p>
<p>This last was the worst possibility. Possession of even a single calorie by an ATFF agent was considered a breach of the oath of office, and punishable by 180 days in Fat Camp, the maximum permitted under the Amendment.</p>
<p>There is no crime more serious than a violation of the public trust, as the Prophet always says.</p>
<p>This handful of corrupt government officials lived in fear of the Skinny Service&rsquo;s network of Fat Camps at Guantanamo Bay and in Eastern Europe. In these all-inclusive resorts, anomalies are treated to hands-on, faith-strengthening therapy. I don&rsquo;t know why they lived in fear. I confess I&rsquo;m jealous of these people. Journalists, academics, hippies, chefs, restaurant critics&mdash;doubters of every kind&mdash;have all gotten this five-star treatment. To be able to devote your every waking hour to making strong your faith in the Prophet&mdash;it gives me goosebumps just thinking about them in Poland or Cuba somewhere, sucking down that exotic, ferrn air. They must like it so much, in fact, that they never come back. Sometimes I think about going myself, resigning from the struggles of the world, dedicating my life to meditation. But the threat to our national security at this time is grave, and the Prophet has asked me to step forward. How could I say no?</p>
<p>Of course, the innocent have nothing to fear from the SS. Most people are Amendment-abiding air-eaters. But in order to protect the innocent from savage attacks by food terrists deranged by their withdrawal symptoms, the Skinny Service has the power to search anyone without a warrant, or even probable cause.</p>
<p>The agent stared at each of us in turn. The cops around me trembled. Their burgers were zero-calorie, but perhaps they feared a misunderstanding. I myself began to quake a bit. But I had nothing to hide. I had been on an air-only diet for years. My Twinkie rapist, though&mdash;it was lurking in my ankle holster, ready to pounce. How would it react to the stranger?</p>
<p>I stood there in the park, the body of Nick Hungry at my feet, unsure what to do. And bearing down on me through the murky pre-dawn haze, an SS agent with a skeletal grin, a stronger, more loyal man than I, a man who ate the same air as the Prophet, mere feet from where our holy ruler lives and works. A man no doubt unafflicted by flying pastry predators. He stepped over the body, shoes squelching in vomit, and came to a halt in front of me. He withdrew a bony hand from his trench coat pocket and reached for my waist.</p>
<p>I sucked in my gut. He&rsquo;s going to pat me down. <em>Think thin. Be thin.</em> He&rsquo;s going to find the Twinkie. What am I going to do if it attacks?</p>
<p class="chapter">Five</p>
<p>The SS man held out a bony hand. &ldquo;Agent Erpent,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;You must be Frolick and Green.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Was that all? A handshake? He glanced down at my ankle, where I was staring. Did he know? Could he guess?</p>
<p>&ldquo;Guilty as charged,&rdquo; I said. His fingers felt brittle.</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;Brittle, brittle, like peanut brittle,</em></p>
<p><em>like Gramma used to make!&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>Careful&hellip;down boy. Bad Twinkie.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The Organized Food Crime Division over at the ATFF said you were the best they had.&rdquo; He patted my waist with his other hand. &ldquo;And the most loyal.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I felt ashamed. If only my faith were stronger, I wouldn&rsquo;t be orally abused by suicidal Twinkie rapists. Evil tormentors! How could I make them go away? At this rate I would never get my waistline down to fifteen inches and fulfill my Skinny Service dreams.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Heard about that apple pie bust,&rdquo; he added. &ldquo;Those housewives were a major threat to national security. Good work.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Warm fuzzies.</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;Warm and toasty</em></p>
<p><em>blueberry muffins</em></p>
<p><em>slathered with butter and&mdash;&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>Green saved me. &ldquo;Cap said to meet you here. What can we do for the SS?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Find that pizza lab and shut it down,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s a disgrace that food deals like this are going on across the street from where the Prophet sleeps at night.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Disgrace is right,&rdquo; I said, &ldquo;but we have to find the murderer first. He&rsquo;s out there, somewhere, in a dark alley, crying his eyes out.&rdquo; I swept a hand at the body. &ldquo;Look at what food made him do.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent nodded. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s true. But what about the poor addicts who suffer because of that lab?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s a good point,&rdquo; Green said. He flipped his notebook shut and put it away. &ldquo;Why don&rsquo;t we do this the SS way?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I thought about that. It was a tough call. &ldquo;The murderer deserves our compassion,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;WWTPD?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent frowned. &ldquo;What&rsquo;s that?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What Would The Prophet Do? We can only save souls one at a time from the Terror of Food. Right now our priority has to be putting that murderer in Fat Camp. Getting him the treatment he needs.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The SS agent folded his twiglike arms across his hollow chest. &ldquo;And suppose I told you these are the Prophet&rsquo;s direct orders?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Before I could reply, Officer Olde gasped. The rookie with the puffy eyes. &ldquo;Holy Air!&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;The Prophet&rsquo;s orders? Really?&rdquo; He flicked on his flashlight, turned it on a patch of dirt. &ldquo;Over here, Special Agents. You&rsquo;ve got to see this!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What is it?&rdquo; Erpent hissed.</p>
<p>&ldquo;A trail of blood. Or it might be pizza sauce. I&rsquo;m not sure. It leads off that way.&rdquo; He pointed into the darkness, where a string of blackened streetlamps led toward the Thin House.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No, no, no,&rdquo; said Officer Nice, shaking his head. He drew his friend roughly aside. &ldquo;You must be mistaken.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But I&rsquo;m quite sure,&rdquo; Olde said. &ldquo;It might help solve this case. I know what Sergeant Thinn&rsquo;s instructions were, but if the Prophet himself is involved, then it&rsquo;s our duty to report everything. He is the Leader of the Food-Free World, after all!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Quite so,&rdquo; Erpent said, his voice frosty. &ldquo;What does the senior officer think?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Probably leftover ketchup from a hot dog stand that used to be here three years ago,&rdquo; Thinn said. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s nothing.&rdquo; To the rookie: &ldquo;You shouldn&rsquo;t waste important people&rsquo;s time like this, Officer.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But this is my beat, Sergeant. I walk by here all the time. That stain wasn&rsquo;t there yesterday.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The ketchup theory makes sense to me,&rdquo; I said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;But look where the trail leads! Straight toward the Thin House! Maybe he&rsquo;s going to try to assassinate the Prophet!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The SS will protect the Prophet,&rdquo; Erpent snapped. &ldquo;Don&rsquo;t you worry about that.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I felt my partner tense at my side. &ldquo;Hang on. Did you say <em>toward</em> the Thin House?&rdquo; he asked.</p>
<p>Olde traced the bloody trail into the darkness with his flashlight. &ldquo;See for yourself.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green jumped forward, notebook once more in hand. &ldquo;It can&rsquo;t be Hungry&rsquo;s blood. He&rsquo;s dead. Maybe the murderer was injured in the struggle. We have to find out where it leads. Expose this criminal to the world.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He took the flashlight from Officer Olde and traipsed off into the darkness. I turned to follow.</p>
<p>Erpent grabbed me by the shoulder. &ldquo;You said it yourself. It&rsquo;s just a ketchup stain. Tell your partner to come back.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Green&rsquo;s a bloodhound,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;What if he&rsquo;s right? It could be an important clue.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;By the Prophet&rsquo;s two-timing taste buds!&rdquo; he swore. &ldquo;We haven&rsquo;t got time for this.&rdquo; To Thinn he called out, &ldquo;Get him back here, now.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The sergeant gestured at two of his men. Nice and another cop jogged off, and came back carrying Green between them. They jogged awful fast for not having eaten in three years. I wondered where they got the energy.</p>
<p>They set him on his feet, and Green came up swinging.</p>
<p>&ldquo;This is an important piece of forensic evidence,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;A major clue to who the murderer might be. Justice in a case like this could mean freedom for us all.&rdquo; He looked around at us wildly, his fists bunched up. &ldquo;Don&rsquo;t you understand that?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent&rsquo;s face had turned red. He looked like he was going to explode. Like a Spanish-style blood sausage when you throw it into the furnace and watch it burn. Instead, he pulled out a cell phone and pushed a button. To Thinn he said: &ldquo;Did you find it?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The sergeant cleared his throat. &ldquo;What you were looking for? No.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What were you looking for?&rdquo; Green demanded.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Yeah, Sarge,&rdquo; said Olde. &ldquo;What were we looking for, anyway?&rdquo;</p>
<p>But Erpent held out a warning finger. &ldquo;Yes,&rdquo; he said into the phone. &ldquo;No&hellip;no, Agent Frolick. With a <em>k.</em> What? At the end. He&rsquo;s right here.&rdquo; He held out the phone to me.</p>
<p>&ldquo;For you.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He nodded.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Who is it?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The Prophet.&rdquo; He looked at me like I was a package of Twizzlers about to be destroyed on Burn Day. &ldquo;And you&rsquo;re keeping him waiting.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You&rsquo;re joking,&rdquo; I said.</p>
<p>Green squeezed my elbow. &ldquo;He doesn&rsquo;t look like the type.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent took a step forward. &ldquo;He wants to talk to you, Special Agent Frolick.&rdquo;</p>
<p>If the skies had opened and a bearded god addressed me from the clouds, I could not have been more shaken. Who was I? A lowly ATFF agent, tormented by a plague of suicidal Twinkie rapists. All because my faith was weak. I shuddered in self-loathing.</p>
<p>Still Erpent stood there, blinking at me quietly, unmoving, arm extended. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. The Prophet. The man to whom I owed my life. My freedom. Everything I had. The Prophet wanted to talk to me?</p>
<p>&ldquo;For me?&rdquo; I croaked again.</p>
<p>Erpent nodded and shook the phone in his hand impatiently.</p>
<p>I took the phone and lifted it to my ear. But it slipped from my grasp and I fumbled for it, caught it before it hit the ground. I let out a long, trembling sigh and looked up at my partner. Green held out both palms. Relax. I pasted the phone back to my head. Opened my mouth to say hello, but a sound like sandpaper on metal squeaked from my lips. I held the phone away from my head and coughed to clear my throat. Loudly. Several times. Then, before I could lose my nerve, I brought the phone back to my ear and said as casually as I could:</p>
<p>Nothing but silence. Had I broken the connection when I dropped it? Or was this some kind of practical joke? It was just the sort of prank the guys down at the station would play.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Agent Frolick?&rdquo;</p>
<p>It was a familiar voice, and it wheezed, deep with the bitter self-reproach that had won him so many followers. I remembered the speeches, the videos, that gravelly, growling voice of truth, with its reedy whine&mdash;so strange, but so compelling&mdash;listening to his life-changing righteousness pour from my car stereo, back when I needed a hydraulic lift to climb out of my vehicle.</p>
<p>It couldn&rsquo;t be. How could it be? It was. &ldquo;This is Frolick,&rdquo; I said, with as much nonchalance as I could muster.</p>
<p>Another pause, then that voice again, like an out-of-tune oboe.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Do you know who this is?&rdquo;</p>
<p>By instinct, I flung my palm out and clicked my heels together. &ldquo;Yes, Mine Prophet!&rdquo; I bobbed my head in the darkness. &ldquo;Can I just say, sir, what an honor it is to, to, to&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Agent Frolick.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Had I offended him? Offended the Prophet? What did I say? I swallowed hard. &ldquo;Sir?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Do you believe?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Yes, Mine Prophet! I believe, I believe, that is, I&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Do you renounce food, and all its wicked recipes, and all its wicked restaurants?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The litany from Air Temple. I was on solid ground now. I relaxed, let my arm fall to my side. &ldquo;I so believe.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Who will lead us from bondage, break the shackles of that grim overseer Food, and deliver us from the Babylon of Calories into the Promised Land of Oxygen?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The Prophet will,&rdquo; I responded by rote. &ldquo;That is, I mean, you will, sir.&rdquo;</p>
<p>There was another long pause. I heard panting in the background, as though from exertion. Come to think of it, his voice sounded kind of nasal. Or at least, more so than usual. Like he had a cold or something. What was the protocol here? Was it polite to inquire if the Divine Leader was congested? Or would that be rude? Before I could make up my mind, the Prophet continued.</p>
<p>&ldquo;We are beset on all sides, Frolick,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;There are those in this world who do not believe such purity as you and I practice is even possible.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The Twinkie flexed its wings in my ankle holster. Not now. Not now! The Prophet couldn&rsquo;t know. I&rsquo;d kill myself if he ever found out. I forced myself to answer.</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s true, sir.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The UN continue their food drops up and down the Eastern Seaboard. Their planes and helicopters fly the Red Cross. For every one I shoot down, two more take its place. I&rsquo;ve got secessionists in the so-called Rocky Mountain Republic, a.k.a. the Republic of Food, with their open flaunting of the food laws and their illegal Gluttony Congress in Denver. I&rsquo;ve got cannibals on the loose on the West Coast, I&rsquo;ve got hillbillies with hydroponic gardens in Appalachia, and do you know what the worst thing is, Special Agent Frolick?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I had no idea what it might be. I didn&rsquo;t dare guess. I said as much.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The worst thing of all,&rdquo; the Prophet said, &ldquo;is that even after our glorious Amendment passed, even after the Air Force sprayed every square inch of arable land with an herbicide powerful enough to last for fifty years, food continues to be available in this country! And do you know why?&rdquo; He did not wait for me to answer. &ldquo;Because of the mafia, that&rsquo;s why. The French Food Mafia. Because of Fatso. Did you know he even calls himself the Foodfather?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The Godfather of Food,&rdquo; I corrected.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I said the Foodfather and I mean the Foodfather,&rdquo; the Prophet said. He didn&rsquo;t raise his voice, but a note of steel cut into his tone.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I need some good news for a change,&rdquo; he continued. &ldquo;I need it soon. Something to show the world. That we&rsquo;re making progress in the War on Fat. I need your help.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I threw my shoulders back. The Prophet needed me. The clarion call of duty had come at last. How could I fail to oblige our savior?</p>
<p>&ldquo;Understood, sir,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;You can count on me.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I hope so, Agent Frolick. Because tomorrow I am hosting the Coalition of the Fasting at the Thin House. Presidents and prime ministers from all over the world will be here, including the heads of state of Tonga, Lichtenstein, Monaco and the Federation of South Pole Research Stations. Our most important allies in the Global War on Fat.&rdquo; He covered the receiver for a moment, and it sounded like he was blowing his nose.</p>
<p>Green looked at me and raised his eyebrows. I held out an open palm. Wait.</p>
<p>The Prophet came back on line. &ldquo;When word gets out about tonight&rsquo;s murder&mdash;oh, I know, our press would never publish something like this, but those vicious ferrn news outlets take such delight in tearing down everything we&rsquo;ve worked so hard to build. When word gets out, our enemies will use this as an example of our failures. &lsquo;Look at how crazy they are!&rsquo; the French president will say. &lsquo;Trying to ban food.&rsquo; Do you know he actually tried to give me&rdquo; &mdash;and he lowered his voice to a whisper&mdash; &ldquo;a giant wheel of Camembert cheese at his last state visit?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The French are nothing but a bunch of food-sucking slaves to pleasure, sir,&rdquo; I said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I just don&rsquo;t understand why the ferrn press can&rsquo;t print our press releases and be done with it, the way the Thin House Press Corps does,&rdquo; he lamented. &ldquo;It would be so much less work.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s the same all over the world,&rdquo; I commiserated. &ldquo;Ignorance is the greatest crime. If people only knew what was good for them, they would surely do it.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;A man after my own heart, Frolick. Let me tell you what I need you to do.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Anything, sir.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I need something to show the Coalition of the Fasting. Something to reinforce their loyalty to the cause. We are in the middle of delicate negotiations for tightening this all-important military alliance, including opening new Fat Camps in their countries. Need I say that a scandal right now, a murder outside the Thin House, of a pizza dealer no less, could easily derail the alliance and put the progress of air-eating back twenty years?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I mumbled noises of agreement.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It all comes down to you, Frolick,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;On your shoulders. Bring me Fatso.&rdquo;</p>
<p>My mind whirled, reviewing everything I knew about Fatso and his organization. He had proven the most elusive criminal I had ever matched wits with in my ten years in law enforcement. The only one, too.</p>
<p>I frowned at the difficulty of the task. &ldquo;I&rsquo;ll do my best, sir.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He lowered his voice. &ldquo;Your best is not good enough.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I cringed. How could I be so stupid? My best wasn&rsquo;t good enough. I knew it, and now the Prophet knew it. What was I going to do?</p>
<p>The Prophet then said: &ldquo;You will do everything in the power of the government of the United States of Air to bring Fatso in. Alive. I have signed an executive order putting the entire resources of our military and intelligence establishments at your disposal. Screw the Food Courts. Fatso&rsquo;s going straight to Fat Island.&rdquo; The tiny atoll in the Indian Ocean where extraordinary rendering takes place.</p>
<p>I gulped. The Supreme Food Court had ruled that only ferrners could be sent there. &ldquo;But what will the judicial branch of our sacred constitutional republic say?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You let me worry about the Obstructionist Nine. This is a direct order, Special Agent Frolick. From your Commander-and-Air-Eater-in-Chief. Find him. Do whatever you have to do. You have twenty-four hours.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I came to attention again and saluted. &ldquo;Yes, Mine Prophet!&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Your will be done.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;At home as well as abroad,&rdquo; he replied. The formulaic rebuttal complete, he surprised me by shifting gears. &ldquo;Have you ever considered applying for the Skinny Service? We could use a man like you.&rdquo;</p>
<p>My jaw went slack. I fingered the tape measure at my waist. &ldquo;I would not presume to such high ambition, sir. Besides, I&rsquo;m at least a couple inches short of&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>The Prophet&rsquo;s reedy voice cracked high. &ldquo;Exception can be made, Special Agent. Bring me Fatso and you work for me. Here. In the Thin House.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I stammered, &ldquo;That would be an honor, sir.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Twenty-four hours, Frolick,&rdquo; the voice said. His cold seemed to be getting worse. &ldquo;Now give me Erpent.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The SS man took the phone. &ldquo;Erpent here.&rdquo; He listened for a long moment. &ldquo;Understood, sir.&rdquo; He hung up and turned to us. &ldquo;The Thin House has woken the D.C. medical examiner. He&rsquo;s on his way to the morgue right now. The contents of the victim&rsquo;s stomach will no doubt lead us to Fatso&rsquo;s greasy lair.&rdquo;</p>
<p>An ambulance idled nearby. Two paramedics had arrived while I was on the phone. At a signal from Erpent, they loaded the dead pizza dealer onto a stretcher and trotted off.</p>
<p>Erpent and I turned to go, but Green just stood there with his arms crossed. &ldquo;What are you waiting for?&rdquo; the SS agent demanded. &ldquo;Let&rsquo;s move!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We&rsquo;re not going anywhere,&rdquo; my partner said. &ldquo;Not until we&rsquo;re finished with the crime scene.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Twenty-four hours,&rdquo; I pleaded with him. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s all we have before the Coalition of the Fasting meets. The Prophet is depending on us&mdash;on us!&mdash;to find Fatso for him.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And the way to do that is to spend some time here looking for clues.&rdquo; He gestured at the vomit and blood at our feet. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s the only way to bring the real criminal to justice.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent stepped forward until he stood nose to nose with Green. &ldquo;And who, in your opinion,&rdquo; he asked, &ldquo;is the real criminal?&rdquo;</p>
<p>My partner flushed. &ldquo;Well, I don&rsquo;t know, do I? That&rsquo;s why we have to investigate.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent jabbed a finger into the other man&rsquo;s chest. &ldquo;The real criminals are lone wolf food terrists. People who look just like you.&rdquo; He smiled. &ldquo;Who even work for, say, the ATFF. Sleeper cells of entire families. But they forget. Their disobedient child loves the Prophet, and refuses to be force-fed&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;&mdash;force-fed their parents&rsquo; food-eating lies.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I said, enough!&rdquo; Green backed away. &ldquo;You win. We&rsquo;ll do it your way.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent pursued him across the dead grass. &ldquo;You don&rsquo;t know anyone like that. Do you?&rdquo;</p>
<p>My partner&rsquo;s shoulders slumped. &ldquo;No.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What would you do if you did?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Arrest them, I suppose.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You <em>suppose?&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>&ldquo;I would turn them in. It would be my duty.&rdquo; His voice had taken on a wooden inflection.</p>
<p>I slapped him on the back. &ldquo;Good man.&rdquo;</p>
<p>His head hung low, like he was sleepy. I was tired too, but now was no time for a nap.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Come on, Harry,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Let&rsquo;s go eat some caffeinated air.&rdquo; I put my arm around his shoulders to lead him away. But he just stood there, staring at the Thin House lit up across the street.</p>
<p>Erpent barked at Thinn, &ldquo;Sergeant. Skinny Service cleaners&mdash;I mean, forensics team&mdash;is due here shortly. Make sure you leave no traces of your presence. Wrappers or&hellip;whatnot.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Thinn gulped, and tossed a greasy burger wrapper into the nearby garbage can.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Wrappers under control, sir.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And Thinn?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Have a talk with fuzzy cheeks here.&rdquo; He turned to the rookie. &ldquo;What&rsquo;s your name, son?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Officer Olde, sir,&rdquo; the boy said, rubbing at his puffy eyes. Nice kept a tight grip around his friend&rsquo;s bicep. &ldquo;I said nothing more than the truth, sir. I believe in the Prophet. That&rsquo;s why I became a cop.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Isn&rsquo;t that precious,&rdquo; Erpent said. To Thinn: &ldquo;Officer Olde needs a lesson in protocol. Don&rsquo;t you agree, Sergeant?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Thinn pinched the rookie&rsquo;s cheeks. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m putting demerits on your record,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;You&rsquo;ll be lucky to keep your badge when I&rsquo;m through with you.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But why would you do that?&rdquo; Olde asked. &ldquo;I&rsquo;ve done nothing wrong.&rdquo; He waved to me and Green. &ldquo;Happy hunting!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Don&rsquo;t you worry about that,&rdquo; I called over my shoulder as we limped toward the car. &ldquo;We&rsquo;ll have Fatso behind bars faster than you can say &lsquo;Go the Power of Air.&rsquo;&rdquo;</p>
<p>For some reason the cops laughed at that, a laugh Erpent cut short with a look. Thinn and his colleagues waddled over to their cruisers and drove off. The ambulance waited for us to follow. The park was empty now, except for the three of us and a blood stain where Nick Hungry had died. Only the murmur of the Thin House water fountain in the distance could be heard.</p>
<p>We climbed into the Smart Car. The vehicle had no back seat&mdash;always a conundrum when transporting handcuffed suspects&mdash;so Erpent perched on Green&rsquo;s knees.</p>
<p>As I pulled away from the curb, I smacked my forehead with my palm. &ldquo;You ought to give Judge Oscar Meyer-Weiner a call. We got the guy&rsquo;s name and social, right?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Get a warrant,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;Good idea.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Put a toilet tap on the guy&rsquo;s house. His family, his friends, known associates. Anyone goes poo in those toilets, or even a little pee-pee, we&rsquo;re going to know about it. Maybe they can lead us to Fatso&rsquo;s hideout. We might even find his Thanksgiving convention this year.&rdquo;</p>
<p>A toilet tap is just what it sounds like: the sewer company comes out and installs a fecal monitor on the sewer output valve of your home. It can also detect urine, and pretty much anything else you might care to flush down your toilet: tampons, used condoms, withered celery stalks, old boots, computer hard drives, sacks of flour&mdash;dime bags of ground-up grain were especially common during food busts&mdash;what have you. The sewer company also has fecal monitors on all the sewer branch lines. This way we can compile effective statistics as to which neighborhoods harbor the most food terrists, and what kind of food they consume. Although the press had kept silent about this new technology at the Prophet&rsquo;s request, word had begun to leak out into the criminal community. Many hoods had taken to building latrines or outhouses in their backyards, which severely limited our ability to track their movements. Their bowel movements, that is.</p>
<p>Erpent snickered. &ldquo;A warrant. How quaint.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Hey,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;We swore to uphold and defend the Amendment. The Constitution is part of the Amendment, last time I checked.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s the other way around,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>I frowned. &ldquo;Are you sure?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Judge Meyer-Weiner!&rdquo; Green said into his cell phone. &ldquo;Sorry for the late call. Got an emergency for you.&rdquo;</p>
<p>We&rsquo;d had a citywide toilet tap authorized by the judge for months, looking for a single strand of Fatso&rsquo;s DNA, anything we could use to track him. But Don Fatso was meticulous in his hygiene, and no matter how much he ate&mdash;and he was rumored to be a glutton of the first order&mdash;not a drop of pee, not a milligram of his poo ever found its way into the D.C. municipal sewer system.</p>
<p>While Green organized the toilet tap, I followed the ambulance as fast as I could. But the paramedics pulled away from us. I couldn&rsquo;t keep up.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Faster!&rdquo; Erpent urged.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What difference does a few minutes make?&rdquo; my partner asked, hanging up the phone. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re both going to the morgue.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Every second counts,&rdquo; the SS man snapped. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s a matter of national security.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I hunched over the steering wheel. &ldquo;I know a short cut.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Take it,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s an order.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I popped the flasher on the roof and squealed around the corner onto Avenue the Prophet Jones. Heading straight into the heart of Georgetown.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Are you crazy?&rdquo; Green shouted. &ldquo;Go back!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent clutched the dashboard. &ldquo;Are we going where I think we&rsquo;re going?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I peeled through a red light, swerved around a burned-out police cruiser. &ldquo;Fastest way to the morgue is through the ghetto.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Fastest way to get eaten by cannibals, you mean!&rdquo; Green shouted back.</p>
<p>Georgetown was D.C.&rsquo;s food ghetto, famous the world over for the lawlessness of its food dealers, where you could get anything&mdash;anything&mdash;your overdeveloped and unnecessary digestive organs might desire. But for a price. The common wisdom held that it was only safe to enter Georgetown by day. Especially in the morning, after the addicts had gotten high off their white rice&mdash;they boil it, can you imagine?&mdash;and collapsed into bed in a drugged stupor. Some are even known to freebase the stuff, wash it down with a glass of water. But after dark? Don&rsquo;t go to G-town, the ooga-booga cannibals will eat you.</p>
<p>Please. Stories to scare children into eating their vegetable-flavored air.</p>
<p>Where others see a cannibal, I see a lost soul. Someone who needs to hear the Prophet&rsquo;s Gospel of Air. How I long to press a copy of <em>Food-Free At Last</em> into their bloodstained hands, get down on our knees together in the middle of the entrails and body parts, and pray. For faith. These people deserve our compassion. Not our derision and scorn.</p>
<p>I had been wanting to come here after dark for ages to spread the good word, but Green always seemed to come up with some excuse to keep us away. My visits were few and far between, and never at night. Now was my chance to save some souls. Even if it was only a brief visit.</p>
<p>To my surprise, Green and Erpent grabbed the steering wheel and tried to turn us around. But I was resolute. The fastest way to the morgue was by doing the Prophet&rsquo;s will at the same time. Isn&rsquo;t life just like that?</p>
<p>We turned a corner, and there they were. A jeep barreled down the street toward us. Men with automatic rifles clung to the roll bars. Red stains ringed their lips. One gnawed a bone, and threw it at us as they sped past. The bone bounced off our roof. Painted in red on the side of their vehicle were the words &ldquo;Suck the Marrow Out of Life.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green clutched his service weapon. &ldquo;Let&rsquo;s hope they aren&rsquo;t hungry.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent looked behind us. &ldquo;Here they come!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The jeep pulled a U-turn and roared after us. I popped the glove compartment. Empty.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What a tragedy.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You&rsquo;re telling me,&rdquo; my partner said. &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t fancy being someone&rsquo;s dinner.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;I mean we&rsquo;re out of literature.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;They&rsquo;re going to kill us and eat us,&rdquo; Erpent said, &ldquo;and you&rsquo;re worried about what kind of kindling they&rsquo;re going to use to cook us?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No, silly,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s the Sushi Gang behind us. They don&rsquo;t cook their victims.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He gasped. &ldquo;You mean they eat them raw?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;They&rsquo;ll cut off a leg and blowtorch shut the wound,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;Meat keeps fresher that way.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Gunfire sizzled around us.</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;Sizzle, sizzle!</em></p>
<p><em>Like crispy frying bacon</em></p>
<p><em>and fluffy scrambled eggs!</em></p>
<p><em>Served with French toast</em></p>
<p><em>and drenched in maple syrup! Yum!&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>The flying Twinkie wriggled and chirped against my leg. I gritted my teeth. <em>Not now. Focus on the scenery. Look at all the empty storefronts spilling broken glass into the street.</em></p>
<p>&ldquo;They&rsquo;re gaining on us,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are you so afraid of?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;They are poor, misguided souls who don&rsquo;t know any better.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And that&rsquo;s enough to kill us!&rdquo; Erpent screamed. &ldquo;Now do something!&rdquo;</p>
<p>I spotted the Golden F&rsquo;s up ahead. &ldquo;Relax. I&rsquo;ve got a plan.&rdquo; I turned down a narrow alley, sped around a disused strip mall and pulled into the Air Temple drive-thru. I realized with horror that the jeep had been unable to follow us. We could just make it out, creeping around the block, looking for some sign of us. I would have to be quick, or I would lose my chance.</p>
<p>I rolled my window down. &ldquo;Yeah, can I get half a dozen Prophet Packs and four condensed <em>Food-Free At Last</em>s?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;They don&rsquo;t strike me as readers, partner mine,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>A second jeep rolled after the first.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Better make that a dozen Prophet Packs,&rdquo; I said into the microphone. &ldquo;And be quick about it, please. We got souls to save!&rdquo;</p>
<p>I reached for the horn, to let the cannibals know where we were, but Green and Erpent wrestled my hands away from the wheel.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are you doing?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Can they see us?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I don&rsquo;t think so.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Maybe they&rsquo;ll give up. Dawn is coming soon.&rdquo; Military street patrols began at dawn.</p>
<p>&ldquo;And lose our chance to bring them freedom?&rdquo; I protested. &ldquo;Let me go!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The twin roar of the jeeps echoed in the street and faded into the distance. They were heading away from us&mdash;and their only chance at salvation.</p>
<p>I struggled, but Green and Erpent held my arms tight to my chest. &ldquo;This is on your conscience,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Not mine.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;They gone?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Looks like it.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Four hands released their grip on me.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Now what do we do?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Go after them,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;And where are my Prophet Packs?&rdquo; I smacked the drive-thru mike. It fell to the ground.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Uh-oh,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;This must be an abandoned Air Temple. Probably being used as a food lab. We got to get out of here, now.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Before he&rsquo;d finished speaking, men with guns stepped out in front of us. I was flung back in my seat. Green&rsquo;s shoe ground my foot against the gas pedal.</p>
<p>A gunman leaped aside, we jumped the curb and squealed back into the street.</p>
<p>&ldquo;But those addicts needed our help!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We&rsquo;re in a hurry,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;The body&rsquo;s probably at the morgue by now.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Not going anywhere til dawn,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;Right now we need to find a place to hide.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent checked his watch. &ldquo;But that&rsquo;s half an hour from now, at least!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green snapped his fingers. &ldquo;Rat Boy. Let&rsquo;s go there.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Rat Boy?&rdquo; Erpent asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You&rsquo;re right,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Finding Fatso is more important than those dealers.&rdquo; My spirits lifted. I could feel the Prophet&rsquo;s guiding hand at work in our investigation.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Rat Boy&rsquo;s a low-level informant. He helped us find Fatso once,&rdquo; Green explained. &ldquo;He might be able to find him again. Plus, no cannibal would ever look for us there.&rdquo;</p>
<p>It was only a quarter mile to the Foodville where Rat Boy lived. Green was right, the Sushi Gang would never go there. Not enough flesh on the skeletal residents to make it worth their while. Next time I came to Georgetown, I would have to bring more literature. And leave Green and Erpent at home.</p>
<p>In the light of the remaining streetlamps, I got a glimpse of the ghetto by night. White men in business suits and expensive silk ties lounged on street corners, looking nonchalant. Their women, in well-cut wool pantsuits and subdued make-up, ground their hips up and down the sidewalk in low-slung pumps, with that mother-of-three come-hither smirk. And all of them prepared to scatter at the first sign of the Sushi Gang.</p>
<p>Such suffering. Such unnecessary squalor. All because of their addiction. Because of those evil food terrists at the French Food Mafia. My Twinkie broke into song, and I gripped the steering wheel tighter. Fatso was the greatest threat the air-eating world had ever seen. He had to be destroyed.</p>
<p>He had to be.</p>
<p class="chapter">Six</p>
<p>It was a notch in the Prophet&rsquo;s tape measure the day the ATFF captured Bakin Cheez Burgher VIII, a.k.a. Rat Boy. Heir to the Fat Boy Burger franchise, and great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Bakin Cheez Burgher Sr., the founder and much-reviled head of that calorie-distribution ring, the youngest Bakin Cheez became famous as his own company&rsquo;s best customer. When the ATFF froze his assets, he fled to Switzerland. Or tried to, anyway. This was before the Prophet closed the borders. We caught him only because he was too big to fit in a first-class airline seat. He argued with the flight attendants long enough to delay takeoff. By that time the armed ATFF squad had limped aboard the plane, resting every few feet to catch their breath&mdash;that body armor is heavy, let me tell you&mdash;and escorted him back to the gate.</p>
<p>&ldquo;This man is a symbol of what is wrong with our country,&rdquo; the Prophet declared in the Thin House Rock Garden. He had replaced the dead rose bushes with Stonehenge-like slabs of West Virginia granite. &ldquo;Look at him.&rdquo; He turned and drilled a finger at Mr. Burgher VIII, who lay on his back, chained to a flatbed truck. &ldquo;Eight hundred putrid pounds. Those great folds of fat. The slobbery jowls. The demented eyes of a crazed food terrist.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The mouth was not made for eating!&rdquo; the Prophet roared suddenly. &ldquo;It was made for consuming God&rsquo;s own air. And Mr. Burgher here is going to learn to eat air the hard way, whether he likes it or not. When we are done with him, he will be a role model of what any citizen of this great nation can be: thin.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He gave a signal, and the Skinny Service driver turned the ignition. The flatbed truck hummed to life.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Off to Fat Camp with him. Off to Fat Camp with all you food terrists out there who can&rsquo;t understand three simple little words: &lsquo;just say no.&rsquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And to those of you who say, &lsquo;slow down.&rsquo;&rdquo; Exaggerated finger quotes. &ldquo;&lsquo;Let us not go to extremes.&rsquo; I say to you: we have come to this hallowed spot&rdquo; &mdash;and he swept a hand at the Rock Garden behind him&mdash; &ldquo;to remind America, the Land of Air, of the fierce urgency of now. This is not the time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The Prophet&rsquo;s words rang in my ears as the three of us limped through the Foodville toward Rat Boy&rsquo;s hovel. The fierce urgency of now. That I understood. Twenty-two and a half hours to find Fatso. No one was ever more fiercely urgent than I was at that moment.</p>
<p>On our way through the shantytown we passed numerous emaciated bodies covered in swarms of writhing maggots. Amazing the lengths you French will go to weaken our faith. Employing Hollywood special effects artists&mdash;members of <em>La R&eacute;sistance,</em> your network of domestic <em>saboteurs&mdash;</em>to construct such lifelike corpses. The maggots! The smells!</p>
<p>&ldquo;Please, sir.&rdquo;</p>
<p>A man whimpered in the mud. He lifted his outstretched arms as we passed, and grabbed hold of Erpent&rsquo;s trench coat. The SS agent jerked away.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Well?&rdquo; he demanded. &ldquo;What do you want?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The man licked his lips. &ldquo;A crumb,&rdquo; he whispered. &ldquo;I beg of you. A crumb. That&rsquo;s all. To taste food once more before I die.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You&rsquo;re not dying,&rdquo; Erpent snapped. &ldquo;All you have to do is believe.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;In eating air?&rdquo; The man cackled and nearly fell over.</p>
<p>&ldquo;This is a land of equal opportunity,&rdquo; I scolded the man. &ldquo;There&rsquo;s enough air for everyone.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Are you for real?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You dare doubt in my presence?&rdquo; The SS man yanked his Laxafier from its holster. &ldquo;I ought to laxafy you right now.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No! No! Look at me! Lunge and chomp. See? Look at how much air I&rsquo;m eating!&rdquo; The man gulped down that life-giving vapor. &ldquo;All I have to do is believe!&rdquo; he shouted.</p>
<p>Erpent lifted his Laxafier to shoot the man. I was moved to compassion. I put an arm on his elbow, drew the weapon back down to his side.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Doubters like him are destroying this country,&rdquo; the SS agent growled.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Once he gets a bellyful of oxygen, he&rsquo;ll be fine,&rdquo; I said. </p>
<p>The man shuffled away on his knees, shaking his head, lunging and chomping. My heart swelled to think that I had brought yet another person to the salvation of eating air.</p>
<p>At the end of the muddy track stood Rat Boy&rsquo;s hovel, a one-room shanty of corrugated iron with rust running in strips down the outside. I drew my own Laxafier. Green did the same. I rapped on the warped metal rectangle propped over the structure&rsquo;s only opening.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I say, old boy, return hither in an hour&rsquo;s time,&rdquo; a voice inside drawled. &ldquo;They have not yet reached a desired state of readiness.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I nodded to Green. Rat Boy, all right. He was one of those Americans&mdash;I mean, Airitarians&mdash;who thought everything in England was better than in the US. Of course, he&rsquo;d never actually been to the UK. I&rsquo;d read his file. The farthest from our God-favored land he&rsquo;d ever been was a Fat Camp in Vermont. His manner of speech, so far as I could make out, was a badly remembered imitation of Masterpiece Theatre.</p>
<p>I held my finger to my lips. I knocked again.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Don&rsquo;t get your knackers in a twist, I&rsquo;m com&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>The words slid from his lips like a piece of rubbery bologna into the incinerator. He lifted the sheet of metal from the door and peered out, straight down the barrel of my service weapon.</p>
<p>Green threw his arms out wide. &ldquo;Why the face?&rdquo; He clapped a palm against the man&rsquo;s greasy, soot-stained shirt, and made a noise of disgust. He wiped his hand on his pants. &ldquo;What&rsquo;s the matter, Rat Boy? Aren&rsquo;t you glad to see us?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;My dear chap, there remains much cooking left to be done,&rdquo; the slum-dweller snapped. He pushed back the hood of loose skin that covered his eyes. &ldquo;Will you not wait somewhere else? It makes my neighbors rather nervous.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The smell of burning hair wafted through the doorway, making my eyes water. Combined with the squalor around us, it sent my compassion into overdrive. The ghetto a few blocks away was genteel by comparison. Here shanty pressed close to shanty on the banks of the Potomacncheese. D.C.&rsquo;s most miserable food whores slept in this Foodville. Poor things. Willing to do all sorts of unspeakable acts in exchange for one of Rat Boy&rsquo;s rotisserie rodents. Lucky for them, though, they would never taste that chargrilled flesh. Their pimps ladled them each a bowlful of gruel once per day, just enough to keep the withdrawal pains from becoming unbearable, and confiscated any non-monetary payments before the woman could shove it down her throat&mdash;and the Prophet help the whore who tried. If only they could learn to have faith in eating air, they too could join the rest of the country in the Feast of Oxygen inaugurated by the Prophet when he took office. Then, and only then, would they be free to escape this riverside slum.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I say, don&rsquo;t be a stranger. Do drop by for a spot of tea later, what?&rdquo; the former fast-food heir said. He reached for the door, but Green leaned his shoulder against it.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I don&rsquo;t know what you&rsquo;re suggesting,&rdquo; I said evenly. &ldquo;We aren&rsquo;t here to consume anything illegal.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I was ashamed of the truth and desperate to prevent it from coming out in front of Erpent and my partner. The fact is, a couple months ago, my Twinkies pulled a despicable stunt. I had come to bring Rat Boy some literature, when a swarm of Twinkies surrounded me and began to sing. They threatened to attack me. I still don&rsquo;t know how they got from my basement all the way across town. They demanded I take a rat from Mr. Burgher. Not as a payoff or bribe, but as a fellow rapist, a four-legged companion to join in their group violation of my mouth and throat. They made me hide the grilled rodent under my trench coat, and crawl back into my Smart Car. Then they forced that disgusting burnt meat down into my stomach.</p>
<p>Ever since, I&rsquo;ve been at my wit&rsquo;s end. It obviously wasn&rsquo;t enough to stay out of earshot of my basement. I don&rsquo;t suppose you Frenchies have any traditional herbal remedies against suicidal pastry mouth molesters? Some kind of Twinkie repellent? No? &rsquo;Cause I&rsquo;ve tried everything. Oh well. Just thought I&rsquo;d ask. </p>
<p>&ldquo;Is it a social visit, then?&rdquo; Rat Boy inquired. &ldquo;Shall I call the butler? He&rsquo;ll see you into the drawing room. Or perhaps you&rsquo;d prefer the library? Truth is I can never remember which is which. There are ever so many rooms. Do be patient, he&rsquo;ll be along shortly. He does tend to get lost. Now, if you&rsquo;ll excuse me?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I rested my Laxafier against the man&rsquo;s shoulder. The tip of the gun disappeared under the folds of loose skin that dangled from his neck. &ldquo;You&rsquo;ve got an ear to the sewer. What&rsquo;s coming down the toilet?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Rat Boy sighed. He leaned forward, and his massive slabs of skin scraped against the door frame. He wore a faded T-shirt that read, &ldquo;Fat Boys Turn Me On.&rdquo; Excessive epidermis erupted from every opening.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Be my humble guest,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Mind the hole in the floor, what? It&rsquo;s ever so tiny, but visitors have been known to stumble. Most unpleasant if you do.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green and Erpent managed by great effort to move the door to one side, and I stepped over the threshold. I had never actually been inside Rat Boy&rsquo;s shack before. A glowing brazier stood to one side. A skewer of half a dozen rats, skin and all, rotated slowly over the coals. Another smell filled the room, mingling with that of burning fur. It took me a moment to identify it. It was poo. No, not poo. Raw sewage. The anal excretions of thousands of food terrists. The undigested waste that drops from their bowels. I followed my nose inside, spellbound.</p>
<p>Green grabbed my elbow. &ldquo;Careful, partner mine.&rdquo;</p>
<p>At my feet a deep hole plunged straight down. Squeaking and splashing noises came up from below. I leaned over the edge. At the bottom, rats clambered over one another, playing their little ratty games&mdash;like hide and go seek, red rover and pin the tail on the donkey, no doubt&mdash;in a river of human excrement.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What is this?&rdquo; I asked in breathless wonder.</p>
<p>Rat Boy busied himself with the brazier. &ldquo;The sewer of our great capital city vomits forth its bounty into the River Potomacncheese. Man&rsquo;s best friend, a species known in Latin as <em>rattus rattus,</em> simply adores the conditions in the pipes far beneath our feet. I fish the shitty subterranean streams with my trusty fishing pole,&rdquo; &mdash;he nodded to where it stood in the corner&mdash; &ldquo;impale them upon my ever-reliable cast iron skewer, and grill them to perfection. Now. About the sauce. With which variety may I tempt your indubitably jaundiced palates?&rdquo;</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;</em><em>Yummy sauce!&rdquo;</em> my Twinkie chirped, <em>&ldquo;Saucy sauce! I want some sauce!&rdquo;</em> and began to dance. I crossed my legs to muffle the noise.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What was that about sauce?&rdquo; I asked as loudly as I dared.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Surely you remember my sauces, old boy. I take great pride in having the best rat sauce between here and New York. Today I can offer you a rat-milk b&eacute;chamel, pigeon liver p&acirc;t&eacute; and a cockroach mousse. The mousse, I must say, is exquisite.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent had said nothing until now, examining the shack with a look of distaste. At the mention of sauce, he gasped. &ldquo;You mean you eat the rats?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But of course, my dear chap. On what rotating planet around what distant star have you been residing these past three years?&rdquo; Rat Boy replied. &ldquo;This is the land of the free and the home of the brave. This is America.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The United States of Air,&rdquo; I corrected.</p>
<p>Erpent flung a trembling finger out at Mr. Burgher VIII. &ldquo;He admits it!&rdquo; he cried. &ldquo;Food terrist! Arrest him! Food terrist!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Chill,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s cool.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent turned on my partner and screamed in his face. &ldquo;He admits his crime. Why aren&rsquo;t you arresting him? Possession of addictive caloric substances, with intent to distribute!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Because he&rsquo;s a snitch,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;Leave him alone. He&rsquo;s helped us out in the past.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;This sort of selective enforcement is not acceptable,&rdquo; Erpent barked. &ldquo;We are a nation of laws!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green stood firm. &ldquo;You didn&rsquo;t seem to mind the burgers the cops had in the park this morning.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s different, Harry,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Their zero-calorie snacks are made out of compressed air. It&rsquo;s not the same thing. You know it&rsquo;s not.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent drew his Laxafier. &ldquo;Failure to arrest a food terrist is a crime. You could lose your jobs for this.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We were doing our jobs until you interfered,&rdquo; Green snapped.</p>
<p>Mr. Burgher VIII plucked the spit from the brazier and brandished it at us, the dead rodents still impaled along the length of the blackened iron. &ldquo;My dearest Frolick, what ever is going on?&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I thought we had an understanding.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I had never been comfortable with our use of snitches. These people deserved treatment in Fat Camp. Why were we letting them suffer? But Green had persuaded me it was for the greater good. I reluctantly sided with my partner.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s more important?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;Capture Fatso? Or put away this scum-sucking chunk of slum-dwelling filth?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Thanks, Frolick,&rdquo; Rat Boy said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Hey,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;No problem.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent scratched his chin. He kept his weapon pointed at Rat Boy&rsquo;s chest. &ldquo;You may be right. But still. We are the long arm and skinny waist of justice. We&rsquo;re not supposed to engage in favoritism.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Think of it this way,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;He&rsquo;s small potatoes. We&rsquo;re after the roast turkey with the cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie and gravy and glazed yams and all the other trimmings. So that we can chuck it all into the fiery furnace and watch it burn.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent lowered his gun. &ldquo;Please proceed with your investigation, Special Agent Frolick,&rdquo; he snapped.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I say, we got off on the wrong foot.&rdquo; Rat Boy held out the smoking spit. &ldquo;Do sample one of my rodential delicacies. Better than crumpets and cream on a Devonshire afternoon, eh, what?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent hissed, &ldquo;Are you attempting to bribe an officer of the SS?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Rat Boy cocked his head to one side. &ldquo;Oh come now. Don&rsquo;t be shy. Can you resist one of my chargrilled specialties? They&rsquo;re crunchy on the outside, soft and juicy on the inside.&rdquo; He lowered his voice. &ldquo;You simply must try the cockroach mousse. It is too good.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent slapped the iron spit out of his face. &ldquo;The Prophet himself has ordered the French Food Mafia shut down and Fatso arrested,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Now tell me what you know.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Rat Boy chuckled. He hooked a thumb at Erpent. &ldquo;He is direct, I&rsquo;ll grant you that.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Before I could stop him, the SS man grabbed the thumb with his free hand and tried to bend it backward. Burgher looked down, as though puzzled by the tiny man dangling from his thumb, then shook his hand free. Erpent slipped to the ground in a pile of rat poo.</p>
<p>It&rsquo;s like the Prophet always says. How can you compete with Olympic athletes who use dope? It&rsquo;s the same with food. How was an Amendment-abiding, air-eating citizen to compete with people like Bakin Cheez? It was like trying to beat the East German swim team. Steroids, food&mdash;same thing. Both were performance-enhancing drugs. In both cases it gave an unfair advantage to the bad guys.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What on earth are you doing, old chap?&rdquo; Rat Boy asked. </p>
<p>Erpent picked himself up and wiped rat poo from his palms. He scraped the filth from his Laxafier and pointed it at Rat Boy&rsquo;s chest. The weapon shook in his hands. Green and I stepped out of the line of fire.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Calm down,&rdquo; my partner said. &ldquo;This is not how we do things.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Which is why I am doing your job for you.&rdquo; He shook his Laxafier in Rat Boy&rsquo;s face. A dangerous thing to do. A laxative dart to the head causes the brain to run out the nose. &ldquo;Now start talking!&rdquo;</p>
<p>My phone rang. I checked the number. &ldquo;Guys!&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Time out. It&rsquo;s my wife?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Oh, right.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent lowered his gun. Rat Boy put the spit back on the grill. I answered on the third ring.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Jason, honey?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I turned away from the others and lowered my voice. &ldquo;How many times have I told you not to call me that?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What, &lsquo;Jason&rsquo;?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No! &lsquo;Honey&rsquo;!&rdquo; I bunched up my fists. &ldquo;I am not an addictive caloric syrup made by bees!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I&rsquo;m sorry, Jason,&rdquo; she cooed into the receiver. &ldquo;You&rsquo;re still sweet to me.&rdquo;</p>
<p>A tingle went up my spine. &ldquo;Look, Oxy,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m on the job. Is everything OK? Nathan getting ready for school?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No, he&rsquo;s not OK. That&rsquo;s why I&rsquo;m calling.&rdquo;</p>
<p>My son! What was wrong? I pressed the cell phone closer to my ear. &ldquo;Why? What happened?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;He&rsquo;s hungry,&rdquo; she said. &ldquo;We both are. Jason&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Not this again.&rdquo; I groaned.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Do you want us both to starve to death?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent waited at the edge of my vision, listening to every word.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I can&rsquo;t really talk right now,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;When I get home we&rsquo;ll pray together. Ask the Prophet to strengthen your faith.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Oh for the love of pizza!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Pizza!&rdquo; I exclaimed. &ldquo;What do you know about pizza?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s an expression, Jason! A figure of speech?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I considered that. Was it a clue? &ldquo;A thin figure or a fat figure?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Mothereating idiot,&rdquo; she swore. And hung up.</p>
<p>My ears stung. Such language! I&rsquo;d never heard her talk that way before.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Can we continue our standoff now?&rdquo; Erpent asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;By all means,&rdquo; I said, and pocketed my cell phone.</p>
<p>The two adversaries resumed their defensive postures. &ldquo;Now where were we?&rdquo; Rat Boy asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You said I&rsquo;m direct. I grabbed your thumb. You shook me loose. Green told me to calm down. I didn&rsquo;t. Then I told you to start talking.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent shook his Laxafier in Rat Boy&rsquo;s face again. &ldquo;So start talking!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;My dear boy,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I sell rats to food whores. Why on earth would you think I know Fatso personally?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent&rsquo;s finger tightened on the trigger.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No!&rdquo; I shouted, and reached for his arm, but it was too late.</p>
<p>A dart embedded itself in Burgher&rsquo;s chest.</p>
<p>The dealer staggered backward against the brazier. &ldquo;God Save the Queen,&rdquo; he mumbled. He touched a finger to a soot-stained photograph on the wall of the current English monarch. With one last effort, he swung the iron spit up onto the hot coals. He slumped down against the creaking, rusty wall, the dart sticking out from between his flabby breasts. A new odor joined the riot of fruit flavors in that hot metal box: fresh poo, with a hint of rotting rat meat.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Thank you,&rdquo; Rat Boy sighed, his eyes closed, head leaning back.</p>
<p>Erpent bent down, pried open an eyelid. &ldquo;Why do you thank us?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So terribly&hellip;constipated. Now I feel wonderfully empty&hellip;clean. Clean. Superbly clean.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green and I exchanged glances. We&rsquo;d shot our share of suspects, but this was a first. Usually they fell asleep and stayed that way until they were in the Food Court holding cell.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Where&rsquo;s Fatso?&rdquo; Erpent demanded again.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Simply not enough fiber in rat meat&hellip;can&rsquo;t afford oat bran. Tried to get some&hellip;Metamucil once&hellip;turned out to be sawdust shavings&hellip;&rdquo; He clucked his tongue. &ldquo;Such dishonesty in the world.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What is in those darts?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>Erpent crouched low over the slumped figure. &ldquo;The usual. Plus some truth serum. Sodium pentathlon. Started using it last month. So far it&rsquo;s proven effective. Although subjects do tend to ramble.&rdquo;</p>
<p>My partner groaned. &ldquo;You&rsquo;ve killed him, then.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent shone a pen light in Rat Boy&rsquo;s eyes. &ldquo;I have not. He&rsquo;ll be fine in a couple of hours.&rdquo;</p>
<p>A half-roasted rat slid from the end of the spit and fell to the ground. Two of its live brethren scurried out of a dark corner and gnawed on its charred flesh. The sound of moist crunching filled the gaps in their conversation. I tried to pet one of the rats, but it bit me.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What happens when the neighbors find out he talked?&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;They&rsquo;ll slit his throat and leave him for the cannibals. Or the rats.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent stood up. &ldquo;We can always issue you sodium pentathlon darts too. You&rsquo;re ATFF, after all.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But that is not the point!&rdquo; Green said, raising his voice. &ldquo;When word gets out that we can&rsquo;t be trusted?&rdquo; He gestured at Rat Boy with his gun. &ldquo;That this is how we treat our snitches? Our ability to develop sources disappears. And with it our ability to do our job.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent smiled, a thin string of flesh across his skin-tight skull. &ldquo;With any luck,&rdquo; he said, &ldquo;by the end of the day we will have Fatso in custody, and you will no longer have need of these low-life traitors.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green snorted. &ldquo;Fat chance of that.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I bent down, stroked Rat Boy&rsquo;s gelatinous forehead. The sooner we shut down the mafia, the sooner my suicidal flying pastry rapist problem would go away.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I&rsquo;m really sorry,&rdquo; I said, as gently as I could. &ldquo;But we need to find him. Any idea where Fatso might be?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Rat Boy spoke from a drugged slumber. &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t know.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You see?&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>Erpent pushed me aside. &ldquo;But you have some idea where he is, don&rsquo;t you? Location of his Supper Clubs, for instance.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The Skinny Service agent had a point. Rat Boy helped us find Fatso that one time. So now, as I stood over Rat Boy&rsquo;s drugged and helpless form, I wondered why our favorite snitch had heard nothing more of the Supper Clubs.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It changes every night, never the same place twice,&rdquo; Rat Boy mumbled. &ldquo;I look to you the sort of person he would invite?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Then how did he know before?&rdquo; Erpent demanded.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Maybe Fatso plugged the leak,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;Let&rsquo;s try some easy questions first.&rdquo; He tapped Erpent on the shoulder. The SS agent hissed, but moved aside. &ldquo;What&rsquo;s your relationship with the mafia?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Rat Boy giggled. &ldquo;I pay protection money.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Why is that funny?&rdquo; Erpent asked, but the giggling only got louder. &ldquo;Answer me, damn you! Why is that funny?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Is funny&hellip;because they protect me from them.&rdquo; The giggles trailed off.</p>
<p>&ldquo;How much you pay?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Two rather large gents visit me once per lunar cycle. I deliver into their big, meaty paws a sealed envelope and a free rat each. They prefer the b&eacute;chamel sauce.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;How much?&rdquo; Green asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Five thousand.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;By the Prophet&rsquo;s unnecessary teeth,&rdquo; Erpent swore. &ldquo;What&rsquo;s the going price for a rat these days?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;It varies upon the weight,&rdquo; Rat Boy said. &ldquo;Around two hundred per head, not counting extras like sauce, pickles, mustard and the various other relishes for which I am justifiably famous.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;People really pay that much to satisfy their addiction?&rdquo; Erpent asked. He seemed genuinely surprised.</p>
<p>I shrugged. &ldquo;Protein is scarce. I mean, for people who are into that sort of thing,&rdquo; I added, at a sharp glance from him.</p>
<p>I bent down again next to Green. Rat Boy looked so peaceful, propped against his hovel wall. The folds of skin at his neck trembled with each breath. &ldquo;Tell me, Mr. Burgher,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Everything you know about&hellip;pizza.&rdquo; The last word I whispered in his ear.</p>
<p>A look of pain passed across his face, as though some great inner struggle was taking place behind those lidded eyes. He said nothing.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Pizza, Rat Boy!&rdquo; Erpent screamed over my shoulder, making my ears hurt. &ldquo;Where is Fatso?&rdquo; He reached down and slapped the food dealer again.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Pizza&hellip;expensive,&rdquo; he finally came out with. &ldquo;What about it?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Where is the food lab?&rdquo; Erpent demanded, hopping on his toes behind me. &ldquo;Why would Fatso sell an uncut pizza? How do we find him?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I held up a hand. &ldquo;One question at a time.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green patted Bakin Cheez on the cheek. &ldquo;You still with us, Rat Boy?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Me Rat Boy,&rdquo; came the reply. His diction was getting worse, an effect of the sedative. &ldquo;Me eat rats. Mommy, yummy, me eat rats!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Let me ask you this,&rdquo; my partner said. &ldquo;Who has the money and the nerve to order a pizza from Fatso, kill the delivery guy, then vomit all over his dead body?&rdquo;</p>
<p>A smile twitched at the corners of Rat Boy&rsquo;s lips. &ldquo;Mommy, I don&rsquo;t think he&rsquo;s heard,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Fun Fun Funny. Everybody knows the prof&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent&rsquo;s shoe connected with Rat Boy&rsquo;s chin. The dealer&rsquo;s head banged against the wall and flopped forward on his chest. I checked the man&rsquo;s vitals. He was out for a while, but he&rsquo;d be fine. I stood up and turned to Erpent, but Green beat me to it.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What in the name of the Prophet was that?&rdquo; Green shouted.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I told you our investigation was of Fatso only,&rdquo; Erpent said calmly. &ldquo;Not the murder. What part did you not understand?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green jabbed a finger into the SS man&rsquo;s bony chest. &ldquo;Skinny Service or no Skinny Service, you interfere one more time in our investigation&mdash;yes, <em>our</em> investigation&mdash;I will personally pump you full of laxatives. Right in front of the Prophet, if I have to. Then we&rsquo;ll see what comes out, Mister Look At Me How Skinny I Am.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The two men held their Laxafiers at ready. For a moment I was afraid of Mutual Assured Laxafication. The first ray of dawn fell between them. A Humvee rattled by outside.</p>
<p>Erpent reacted. &ldquo;I&rsquo;ll deal with you later. Right now, we&rsquo;ve got to get to the morgue.&rdquo;</p>
<p>We limped across the Foodville to the Smart Car, Erpent urging us on to faster and faster hobbling. I mused out loud over Rat Boy&rsquo;s last words.</p>
<p>&ldquo;&lsquo;Knows the prof,&rsquo;&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;The &lsquo;prof.&rsquo; The profusion? Of what? No. The professor? Professor, where? What college? What subject? No. Wait. I got it. The profit.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green made a big <em>O</em> with his mouth. &ldquo;Welcome to the party.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The profiteering,&rdquo; I added, convinced I had nailed it. I drew myself up straight and declared, &ldquo;The profiteering bastards of the French Food Mafia are slowly destroying this country with their addictive caloric substances.&rdquo; I turned to Green. &ldquo;What do you think? Is that what he was trying to say?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green&rsquo;s smile faded. Erpent glared at him. &ldquo;We don&rsquo;t need a snitch to tell us that,&rdquo; my partner said. &ldquo;We know it already.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I know what all of you out there are thinking right now. And shame on you. When you find out what really happened that night, the truth will warm the cockles of your heart.</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;And serve them up</em></p>
<p><em>with lemon juice and salt!&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>Shut up, you.</p>
<p>Don&rsquo;t believe me? No? Just you wait and see.</p>
<p class="chapter">Seven</p>
<p>My favorite thing about the morgue was the ME&rsquo;s special ham. Back before the Prophet came to power, I&rsquo;d made any excuse to visit the coroner. I never could figure out why he called it special ham. Maybe because he smoked it himself. We&rsquo;d munch succulent sandwiches, an entire leg of the stuff between us, surrounded by dead bodies with tags hanging from their ears, because their legs were missing. An awful lot of paraplegics passed through that morgue, let me tell you. Must have been an epidemic of wheelchairs crushed by speeding semitrailers. No doubt road rage caused by eating food.</p>
<p>Those terrible days were over now, thank the Prophet. It had been three years since I last visited. I wondered how he was. I shouldn&rsquo;t have worried.</p>
<p>A bent figure shuffled out of the darkness, leaning heavily on an IV stand. Plastic tubes snaked out of his nose and down his back to an oxygen tank he pulled behind him. His puckered face exploded when he saw us, like popcorn when you throw it into the incinerator.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Frolick!&rdquo; he wheezed. &ldquo;What&rsquo;s an honest cop like you doing in a place like this?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What a joker,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Are you implying there are cops who are dishonest?&rdquo; I turned to Green and Erpent. &ldquo;Can you believe this guy?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He chuckled and offered me his hand. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s good to see you,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s been too long.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I grinned in spite of myself. Medical Examiner Hot &lsquo;N&rsquo; Juicy and I went way back. From even before I partnered up with Green. I took his bony claw in my own. How frail my old friend looked. How&mdash;old.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Doc,&rdquo; I said at last. &ldquo;You&rsquo;ve lost weight.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy cackled. &ldquo;I lose any more I&rsquo;ll be dead.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Then maybe you should pray for faith,&rdquo; Erpent said sharply. His eyes narrowed. &ldquo;You got a permit for this?&rdquo; He stood on tiptoe to read the sticker on the IV bag.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s his medicine,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Leave him alone.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No. It&rsquo;s not. It&rsquo;s glucose.&rdquo; Erpent snapped a ragged fingernail against the bag, and for a moment I thought the plastic would tear. &ldquo;An addictive caloric substance.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy retrieved a wallet from a baggy hip pocket. He used to weigh as much as I did, close to five hundred pounds. Now his white lab coat hung loose on his shoulders, sixteen sizes too big for him.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Medical exemption,&rdquo; he muttered, hunting through the wallet. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m diabetic.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s no excuse,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;A condition that would not exist if you had more faith. Air is all you need.&rdquo; The SS agent&rsquo;s jaw twitched, no doubt wishing he could destroy that bag of sugar water and remove one more source of temptation from the world.</p>
<p>In that moment, I sympathized with both of them. I know how hard it is when your faith is weak, and the Twinkies attack. To watch an addict consuming so much as a single calorie can incite them. But on the other hand, when you&rsquo;re diabetic, a tiny lapse in faith could cause dangerously low blood sugar, sending you into a coma. It was a tough call, finding the right balance.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Here it is.&rdquo; Juicy held out a laminated card. &ldquo;See the signature?&rdquo; He jabbed a frail finger at the signing authority.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Director of National Air Security, Lt. Gen. Allfood Bad,&rdquo; Erpent read, and bit his lip. He caught himself, looked around at those of us who had seen him do it, and wiped the saliva from his lips. No one wanted to gain a reputation for self-cannibalization.</p>
<p>Juicy cackled, &ldquo;Chew on that, Agent Whoever You Are.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s Erpent,&rdquo; the SS man snarled. &ldquo;Agent Erpent, Special Aide to the Prophet Himself.&rdquo;</p>
<p>You could hear the initial capitals as he spoke them. I had no idea he was so important. &ldquo;Really?&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Wow.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Whatever.&rdquo; Juicy shrugged. &ldquo;No sugar, no me. No me, no morgue. No morgue, no one to cut open the bodies for you. Got it?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent&rsquo;s eyes flickered across the card, no doubt admiring the photo. When he was done, he grunted and shoved the card back at Juicy. &ldquo;So where&rsquo;s our pizza guy?&rdquo; he demanded. &ldquo;Cut him open, let&rsquo;s see what we got.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Always so impatient,&rdquo; Juicy sighed. He turned away from us, shuffled toward a sheet-covered corpse.</p>
<p>The room smelled of burnt meat and formaldehyde. A carving knife protruded from the leg of a nearby body. A lit Bunsen burner on a corner bench illuminated a bloody saw. I sniffed again. Was it possible? I would have sworn I caught a hint of Juicy&rsquo;s famous special ham. Must be a remnant odor. Years old. Down here in the basement things didn&rsquo;t get aired out nearly so often as they ought to be.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No appreciation for the skill,&rdquo; Juicy continued. He tapped his temple with a skeletal forefinger. &ldquo;The vital matter of analysis made possible by the human cerebrum.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Ignore the super skinny,&rdquo; Green said to the coroner, using a rude nickname for a member of the Skinny Service. &ldquo;We just want to know who killed the guy.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No!&rdquo; The shout echoed in the concrete basement. Erpent tightened the tape measure around his waist. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re after Fatso, not the murderer. How many times do I have to say it?&rdquo; He turned on Juicy. &ldquo;Cut his stomach open. Do it. Now.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Your friend seems a bit high strung,&rdquo; Juicy remarked, and stopped next to a gurney.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No friend of mine,&rdquo; Green said, and crossed his arms.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I don&rsquo;t expect you to like me, Agent Green,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;I expect you to obey me. Is that clear?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green clicked his heels together, threw out an open palm and shouted, &ldquo;Go the Power of Air!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy chuckled. He checked the tag on the body&rsquo;s big toe. &ldquo;This is the one,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I can&rsquo;t tell you who killed him. Even if I wanted to,&rdquo; he added, looking at Erpent from under his eyebrows. &ldquo;But I can tell you what he ate in the last twenty-four hours. More importantly, I can tell you his name.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Nick Hungry of Pepperoniville, Pennsylvania,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Rap sheet as long as a piece of melted cheese.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;How long is a piece of melted cheese?&rdquo; Green asked.</p>
<p>I furrowed my brows in concentration. Come to think of it, I had never considered the question before. &ldquo;You know,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m not sure.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s just one of his many aliases,&rdquo; Juicy said, ignoring our conversation. &ldquo;His tattoo was surgically altered. I ran his prints through the FBI&rsquo;s database. This is what came out.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He chucked an inch-thick stack of paper onto the dead man&rsquo;s chest. The pages were held together with a binder clip. He nodded toward me and Green. &ldquo;The two of you should take a look at it. Might help in your investigation.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent grabbed the report before I could pick it up. &ldquo;Let me see those,&rdquo; he said, and flipped through the pages. Over his shoulder I could see table after table listing chemical reactions. I had no idea what it meant.</p>
<p>I pinched the report between my thumb and forefinger. &ldquo;Care to give us the executive summary?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy pulled the dead man&rsquo;s right arm out from under the sheet. He picked up a pair of scissors and cut away the sleeve. &ldquo;The real Nick Hungry disappeared eight months ago. This guy&rsquo;s name is Jacques Crusteau, a baker&rsquo;s apprentice from Quiche Lorraine, France.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green whistled. &ldquo;The French Food Mafia&rsquo;s ancestral homeland.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;He&rsquo;s had his social security number surgically altered on several occasions,&rdquo; Juicy continued, tracing faint scar lines amidst the blue bar code with the tip of the scissors. &ldquo;The alterations are good enough to fool the scanners, but fingerprints are harder to modify.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But why didn&rsquo;t he go clean?&rdquo; Erpent asked.</p>
<p>I was surprised at Erpent&rsquo;s question. It showed how little he knew of field work. Even I knew the answer to that one.</p>
<p>&ldquo;To go clean&rdquo; meant illegal removal of your social security number and bar code. While only ex-cons were obliged by law to wear their tattoos, these days that meant pretty much everyone. After all, who hadn&rsquo;t been to Fat Camp at least once?</p>
<p>I let the coroner explain.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No one looks twice at a multiple offender these days,&rdquo; Juicy said. &ldquo;But a first-timer? Someone without their digits?&rdquo; He shook his head. &ldquo;It would attract too much attention.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The coroner lifted the sheet until only the dead man&rsquo;s head remained covered. He cut away Crusteau&rsquo;s blood-soaked grey sweatshirt to reveal a navy-and-white striped shirt underneath. The thick stripes ran horizontally across the man&rsquo;s chest. From under one armpit, the coroner plucked a crumpled black beret. From the other armpit, a half-empty pack of Gauloises.</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;</em><em>Voil&agrave;!&rdquo;</em> he said. &ldquo;As I suspected. The uniform of French Intelligence. Your pizza dealer was a spy.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Why would a French spy want to work for Fatso?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;That makes no sense.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green chewed on a fingernail. I would have to have a talk with him about that later. &ldquo;Maybe it does, partner mine. Remember Taco Tim?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Nine months ago, Congressman Tim O&rsquo;Mexico, the Irish-American &ldquo;Lion of Airizona,&rdquo; had come to the ATFF with a confession. In return for a reduced sentence, he told us how a blackmailer had photos of him in a compromising position with half a dozen chimichangas. The press had dubbed him &ldquo;Taco Tim.&rdquo; I guess &ldquo;Chimichanga Tim&rdquo; just didn&rsquo;t have the same ring to it. He could have paid, he told us. But the blackmailers would have slowly bled him dry. He was nearing retirement age, and he wanted to leave an inheritance for his kids. He decided a two-month stretch in Fat Camp wasn&rsquo;t such a bad deal after all. Even managed to keep his Congressional seat when he got out. <em>I</em> wouldn&rsquo;t have voted for him, you understand. I was shocked to hear that others had. That kind of vice in our public officials is more than just anomalous. It&rsquo;s a disgrace. Can you imagine? Half a dozen chimichangas? At the same time?</p>
<p>&ldquo;So you think Crusteau was looking for someone to blackmail?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s what spies do, isn&rsquo;t it?&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;Maybe the murderer was a politician.&rdquo; He glanced at Erpent. &ldquo;Or maybe someone&rsquo;s aide.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Entirely possible,&rdquo; Juicy said. &ldquo;Now you see why he had a phony social?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The question is, though,&rdquo; I said, &ldquo;is Fatso part of this? I mean, is he working for French Intelligence too?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent broke his silence. &ldquo;Fatso and the French spies hate each others&rsquo; guts,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Fatso may be a criminal but he&rsquo;s still a loyal Airitarian. He doesn&rsquo;t want to see the Amendment repealed. Or he&rsquo;d lose all his business. It&rsquo;s the French we have to worry about.&rdquo; With a flick of his wrist he dropped the stack of papers back on top of the corpse&rsquo;s chest. The papers slid against Crusteau&rsquo;s head, pinning the remaining sheet to his neck. &ldquo;Now can we please start cutting? I want to see what&rsquo;s in his stomach. This <em>is</em> rather urgent, you know.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy grabbed hold of the edge of the sheet. &ldquo;Do you mind?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I picked up the papers, and the coroner yanked the sheet off the dead man&rsquo;s face. The three of us newcomers gasped.</p>
<p>In the park we had seen Jacques Crusteau alias Nick Hungry lying face down in the dead grass under a broken streetlamp. Now we saw him face up under the bright light Juicy turned on. Deep gashes pocked the dead man&rsquo;s face, neck and chest. His skin shone damp, like someone had recently wiped down the body.</p>
<p>Something was missing. It was Green who spotted it first.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No vomit,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;No pizza sauce. No leftover cheese.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy clucked his tongue. &ldquo;This is how they brought him in.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What!&rdquo; I exclaimed. &ldquo;Didn&rsquo;t you examine the crime scene?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And when would I have time to do that?&rdquo; he asked. &ldquo;Two Skinny Service types dragged me out of bed half-dressed. Told me it was a matter of national security.&rdquo; He scowled at Erpent. &ldquo;So if this isn&rsquo;t how the body looked at time of death, don&rsquo;t blame me.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy and Erpent glared at each other. There was an acid tension between the two, like drinking a glass of vinegar on an empty stomach. The sort of thing the Prophet used to do in his &ldquo;health food phase,&rdquo; before discovering the miracle of eating air. I tried to throw some sodium bicarbonate on the situation.</p>
<p>&ldquo;So it was a knife, then?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>Juicy withdrew from his staring match. He turned back to the corpse in front of him.</p>
<p>&ldquo;At first I thought so too,&rdquo; he said in a tired monotone. He put down the scissors and picked up a surgical spreader. &ldquo;But if you look closely at the depth of the wounds,&rdquo; &mdash;and here he spread open a deep gash in the man&rsquo;s shoulder and inserted a plastic ruler&mdash; &ldquo;you&rsquo;ll notice the weapon appears to have been circular in shape, and sharp all around.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So what was it?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;He was trying to defend himself,&rdquo; Juicy went on. He lifted up the man&rsquo;s wrists. The backs of Crusteau&rsquo;s hands and forearms had been gashed in the same peculiar manner. &ldquo;And this,&rdquo; he said, and traced a long gash across the man&rsquo;s neck, &ldquo;is the wound that killed him. Severed the carroty artery.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We&rsquo;re not interested in the murder weapon,&rdquo; Erpent said, tapping his shoe against the concrete floor. &ldquo;What we want to know is what is in his stomach. Can you get cutting now? Please?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The coroner fastened a pair of goggles over his eyes. He regarded the SS agent through the smudged plastic. &ldquo;Young man,&rdquo; he said, &ldquo;do you know why I&rsquo;m still here?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent cracked his knuckles. &ldquo;What do you mean?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy tossed the surgical spreader back onto the tray with a clatter. He lifted a circular saw from the floor. &ldquo;Why I didn&rsquo;t go to Canafooda with the rest of them. The AMA crowd. Why I chose a shitty job like this instead of going into private practice in the first place. I could have, you know.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Without waiting for an answer, he flicked a switch on the saw and slid the spinning blade through Crusteau&rsquo;s sternum. Bone dust and flecks of flesh sprayed fore and aft. The three of us stepped away from the gurney, shielding our faces with our hands.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Because I believe in justice!&rdquo; Juicy howled like a food-crazed chef carving a turkey corpse. Over the whine of the saw against bone we could barely make out his words. &ldquo;Because I believe in punishing the guilty! And there are none of us who is innocent!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The saw sputtered and died. Juicy dropped it back onto the floor and dug his gloved fingers into the space made in Crusteau&rsquo;s chest cavity. With a heave the ribs separated, exposing the French spy&rsquo;s internal organs to the cold basement air.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I will give you all the information I have,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;But I will not be bullied, I will not be threatened and I will not be silenced.&rdquo;</p>
<p>And with that, he buried his arms up to his elbows in the dead man&rsquo;s intestines.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Funny,&rdquo; Erpent said, in the silence that followed, the squish of internal organs loud in the quiet basement. &ldquo;I thought you stayed put because of your special ham.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy bent his head lower over his work. His face was hidden in shadow. &ldquo;I believe in this country, Agent Erpent. I believe in the words that end our Pledge of Allegiance: &lsquo;and justice for all.&rsquo; Including for me.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent rested his hand on the butt of his gun, and rocked back on his heels. &ldquo;Even for cannibals?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;For them, for everyone,&rdquo; Juicy said, squeezing the dead man&rsquo;s intestines between his fists. &ldquo;Monstrous brutes, cannibals. Consuming the flesh of their fellow man.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You know the punishment for cannibalism?&rdquo; Erpent leaned forward now, his face contorted once more in that death&rsquo;s-head grimace.</p>
<p>I put my hand in the air, jumped up and down. This was just like ATFF school. &ldquo;Ooh! I know!&rdquo; I cried. &ldquo;Pick me! Pick me!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green sighed, pulled down on my arm. &ldquo;Go ahead, Agent Frolick.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The punishment for cannibalism,&rdquo; I recited, &ldquo;is to be tied hand and foot and dropped off at sundown in an area of known cannibal activity. Ironic, huh?&rdquo; I looked up at Erpent. His recommendation, it occurred to me, would be crucial in making the jump to the Skinny Service. &ldquo;Did I get it right? Can I give the dunce cap back now?&rdquo;</p>
<p>They were all looking at me kind of funny. Juicy spoke first. &ldquo;Thank you,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Your memory, as usual, does not fail you.&rdquo; He dropped the coil of intestines and shifted down to Crusteau&rsquo;s hips. &ldquo;Now help me with this, will you?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He slid both gloved hands, smeared with blood, under the dead man&rsquo;s naked right buttock. I stood opposite and did the same. The cold skin of the corpse&rsquo;s bottom weighed heavy on my fingertips.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Like this?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Now lift.&rdquo;</p>
<p>We lifted.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You there. The bed pan,&rdquo; he said to Erpent. &ldquo;Be quick about it.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent did not move. Green grabbed the bed pan and jammed it under the man&rsquo;s tush. Crusteau&rsquo;s legs, stiff with rigor mortis, poked up at an angle.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Now,&rdquo; Juicy said with a smile, &ldquo;let&rsquo;s have a look-see, shall we?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He wrung the dead man&rsquo;s colon between his fists until a thick brown poo oozed out into the bed pan. &ldquo;He shat himself when he died,&rdquo; the coroner said. &ldquo;They all do, of course. Loss of bowel control at moment of death is normal. But here,&rdquo; and Juicy picked through the paste with a pair of tweezers, &ldquo;here we have the contents higher up. Look!&rdquo; He held up a tiny piece of brown.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What is it?&rdquo; I asked eagerly, bending over the bed pan, the aroma of the dead man&rsquo;s last meal fragrant in my nostrils. This was being alive. Here I was, examining the contents of a French spy&rsquo;s bowels. All I had to do now was catch Fatso. I was on my way to the top of the Skinny Service. I was sure of it.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Brown rice,&rdquo; Juicy said. &ldquo;And see this? Half-digested tofu. Bean sprouts. Legumes. Pulses. Even what looks like an apple seed.&rdquo; He held aloft the suspect particle between his tweezers. &ldquo;Fruit! Can you imagine?&rdquo; he said, and laughed.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Loathsome creature,&rdquo; Erpent spat.</p>
<p>&ldquo;He was an addict,&rdquo; Juicy said. &ldquo;He couldn&rsquo;t help himself. I think we all know what that&rsquo;s like.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Speak for yourself, Doctor,&rdquo; Erpent said with a scowl. &ldquo;Now can we get to his stomach? That&rsquo;s what we&rsquo;re here for.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I thought we were here to trace the contents of the man&rsquo;s stomach back to the source,&rdquo; Green objected. &ldquo;To help us find Fatso.&rdquo; He indicated the bed pan in front of us. &ldquo;Isn&rsquo;t that what we&rsquo;re doing now?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Patience,&rdquo; the coroner said to Erpent. &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t know what your rush is, but we&rsquo;re getting there.&rdquo; He took up a scalpel and made an incision in Crusteau&rsquo;s primary digestive organ.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You&rsquo;re in luck, you know,&rdquo; he said, peering down into the man&rsquo;s stomach. <em>&ldquo;Monsieur</em> Crusteau was a bad boy. He didn&rsquo;t take his laxative the way Fatso told him to.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Over the last few months, we had discovered the French Food Mafia was issuing laxative tabs to all its dealers, with orders to clean out their colons every afternoon before reporting for duty on their street corners at nightfall. Simply having poo residue in your lower intestines was enough to get you thirty days in Fat Camp. In many cases, dealers destroyed evidence before we could arrest them, but we could always still nail them on residue charges. This new tactic of theirs had caused us great frustration. Time after time we had to let hardened ex-con dealers go just because their intestines were clean. It was maddening.</p>
<p>The coroner scooped a handful of goop out of the French spy&rsquo;s stomach and into the bed pan, on top of the rest of the residue.</p>
<p>Erpent bent over the bowl, staring eagerly into the brown mess. &ldquo;Well?&rdquo; he said at last.</p>
<p>Juicy picked through the goop for a long moment, humming to himself. Saliva dribbled from the corners of his mouth. He licked his lips.</p>
<p>&ldquo;That confirms it,&rdquo; he said at last, and stood up straight.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Confirms what?&rdquo; Erpent demanded.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Your boy here was a vegetarian. Vegan, in fact.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What?&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;A pizza dealer who doesn&rsquo;t use his own product?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy waved a hand in the air. &ldquo;Been seeing it a lot these days. You want me to bag that for you?&rdquo; This last to Erpent.</p>
<p>The SS man continued to stare down into the bed pan. &ldquo;Are you sure there&rsquo;s nothing else?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Why would you want him to bag it for you?&rdquo; I asked. I turned to Juicy. &ldquo;Don&rsquo;t you have a lab here?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent snapped his fingers. &ldquo;Give me the tweezers. Now!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy held out the instrument in silence.</p>
<p>The Skinny Service agent fished around in the goop. I looked over at Green, who made a face. He obviously had no more idea than I did what was going on. I was about to ask again about the coroner&rsquo;s lab when Erpent came up with a big chunk of something between his tweezers.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Distilled water,&rdquo; he ordered. &ldquo;Quick.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy grabbed a bottle of lab H<sub>2</sub>O and squirted it over the chunk Erpent held up. The poo rinsed away and the object took shape. I was stunned when I saw what it was.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Maybe not so vegan after all,&rdquo; Juicy said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;How did that get in there?&rdquo; Green asked.</p>
<p>It was a nose. A human nose. Or piece of one, anyway. A prominent mole protruded from the tip. A mole in the shape of a bratwurst. The back end of the nose was ragged, like it had been bitten off. The skin was burned from exposure to stomach acid.</p>
<p>I knew only one man with a mole in the shape of a bratwurst on the tip of his nose, and that was the Prophet himself. The famous &ldquo;Nose Mole,&rdquo; as the press had dubbed it, that led our Fearless Leader in search of the tastiest air in North America. What this meant, obviously, was that there was a second man somewhere in D.C. with an identical mole, who had just killed a pizza dealer across the street from the Thin House. Once we find Fatso, I thought, we&rsquo;re coming for you. Whoever you are.</p>
<p>I tapped my teeth. &ldquo;I wonder who it could belong to?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;There&rsquo;s always,&rdquo; Green said with a glint in his eye, &ldquo;the Prophet.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I burst out laughing. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s the funniest thing I&rsquo;ve heard in years!&rdquo; I roared. &ldquo;The Prophet. Eating pizza! Killing a food dealer! Getting his nose bitten off!&rdquo; I wiped tears from my eyes. &ldquo;Thanks, partner. I needed that.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent slapped me on the back. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s the spirit.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The spirit of what?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s called deduction. We&rsquo;re detectives. That&rsquo;s what we do.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Oh. Yeah. Right.&rdquo; The SS man turned to the coroner. &ldquo;I need a sterile container, and either milk or sugar solution. Stat.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The coroner shook his head. &ldquo;Why would I have milk here? It&rsquo;s illegal. Much less sugar solution. I&rsquo;m a coroner. Not a GP.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent scanned the room. His eyes fell on the tray of instruments. &ldquo;Give me a clean scalpel, then.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent took the scalpel, unhooked Juicy&rsquo;s IV bag and slashed the feed. He turned it upside down and cut a hole in the bag.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You mothereating mouth,&rdquo; Juicy swore. &ldquo;What do you think you&rsquo;re doing?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What does it look like I&rsquo;m doing?&rdquo; Erpent asked. &ldquo;And watch the language, please?&rdquo; He dropped the acid-burned nose into the bag of sugar water. He turned away from us and took out his cell phone.</p>
<p>Juicy turned to us, flabbergasted.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Don&rsquo;t look at me,&rdquo; I said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You know,&rdquo; Green said, &ldquo;whoever it was must be talking kind of funny right about now.&rdquo; He pinched his nostrils together. &ldquo;When you spoke on the phone to the Prophet, did he sound strange to you? Nasal, maybe?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I frowned, trying to remember. &ldquo;A little bit,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Like he had a cold or something. Why?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green exchanged glances with Juicy. &ldquo;Or like he had his nose bandaged?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I laughed. &ldquo;What a bizarre thing to say. Why would the Prophet have his nose bandaged?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy nodded and crossed his arms. &ldquo;Probably just a cold then.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Well, it could be the flu,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;I can never remember the difference. Whatever causes that kind of congestion.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green spat. &ldquo;Disgusting. Don&rsquo;t you think? I&rsquo;d resign my tape measure right now if I thought it would do any good.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Harry!&rdquo; I exclaimed. &ldquo;What&rsquo;s gotten into you? The Prophet catches cold and you go crazy. Down, boy. Save it for the food terrists.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Meanwhile, Erpent had finally gotten a hold of whoever it was he was trying to reach. We fell silent. Even from across the room we could make out the hushed murmurings into his handset.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s me,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I found it. Yes. Get someone down here, now. What? Does it matter? It was in his stomach. He must have swallowed it. Have a surgeon standing by. I don&rsquo;t care. Someone you trust.&rdquo; Erpent looked over his shoulder. We were all staring at him. He raised his voice. &ldquo;And get the forensics techs onto analyzing this fragment right away. It will no doubt lead us to the perpetrator of this heinous, heinous crime.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent hung up the phone and rejoined us around the carved-up corpse.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You know what this means?&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It means we&rsquo;ve got twenty-one hours left to find Fatso and save the Coalition of the Fasting,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;The Fate of the Food-Free World is in our hands, gentlemen. Let&rsquo;s move.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;It means,&rdquo; Green said, not moving, &ldquo;that there&rsquo;s someone out there with a missing nose. And when we find him, we&rsquo;ll have our killer.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The muscles in Erpent&rsquo;s jaw twitched. &ldquo;This is no longer a criminal investigation, Agent Green,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s a matter of national security. Or do you happen to have a background in counterespionage?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Counterespionage?&rdquo; Green exclaimed. &ldquo;What are you talking about?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Isn&rsquo;t it obvious?&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;Crusteau here was an <em>agent provocateur.</em> Part of a French plot to sabotage the Coalition press conference tomorrow.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sabotage?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;How?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;If they can embarrass the Prophet, they can derail the expansion of the Global War on Fat. And what could be more embarrassing than a dead pizza dealer across the street from the Thin House?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Wait a minute,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;Are you saying Crusteau was on a suicide mission? I find that hard to believe.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent sighed. &ldquo;Do not underestimate the enemies of this great country,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;These crazed food terrists will do anything to bring back the Tyranny of Food, and enslave us once more to their addictive caloric substances.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy laughed, a long throaty chuckle that turned into a hacking cough. He bent double, trying to breathe, and pressed the oxygen tubes tight to his face. When he was able to speak again, he said, &ldquo;That&rsquo;s the most ridiculous thing I&rsquo;ve ever heard.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent&rsquo;s eyes narrowed. &ldquo;When I want your opinion, Medical Examiner, I will give it to you.&rdquo; He glanced at me and Green. &ldquo;That goes for both of you as well.&rdquo;</p>
<p>A fair reprimand, I thought. It is for us to obey the will of the Prophet, not to question why.</p>
<p>Erpent looked at his watch. &ldquo;But right now we have got to go.&rdquo; He pointed at the bed pan. &ldquo;So yes. Bag it for us. Make it snappy.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s wrong with the lab right here?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;The coroner has world class facilities.&rdquo; When I was on the D.C. force, Juicy often helped us with investigations.</p>
<p>The coroner scooped up the poo and shoveled it into a biohazard bag. &ldquo;He&rsquo;s taking you to the NSA.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The National Sewer Agency?&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>Erpent swore a terrible oath. &ldquo;By the Prophet&rsquo;s pointless pancreas!&rdquo; he snarled. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s Top Secret, Doctor. You&rsquo;re asking for punishment.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No more than I deserve.&rdquo; Juicy squeezed my arm. &ldquo;Besides, what I know is very little. The NSA has some new lab. The Skinny Service uses them for domestic operations.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But I thought the NSA was forbidden to spy on the homeland&rsquo;s toilets,&rdquo; Green objected.</p>
<p>The doctor chuckled, pointed at me and my partner. &ldquo;You two are a real pair, you know that?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The doors to the morgue banged open and two SS agents burst in, pushing a stretcher.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Over here!&rdquo; Erpent called out. He lay the bag of sugar water with the nose in it in the center of the taut white sheet. &ldquo;Now move!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The black trench-coated figures limped to the door and were gone, all without saying a word.</p>
<p>Erpent grabbed the biohazard bag of poo that Juicy held out. It flopped against his leg. He saluted, shouted &ldquo;Go the Power of Air!&rdquo; and marched off.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Wait,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Dr. Juicy, you still haven&rsquo;t told us what the murder weapon was.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Didn&rsquo;t I?&rdquo; He raised his eyebrows. &ldquo;I should be able to recognize it by now. This is the third time I&rsquo;ve seen wounds like this in as many months. And all of them dead pizza dealers.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Is there any proof?&rdquo; Green asked. &ldquo;Actual evidence we can use? To find the suspect, I mean.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Juicy glanced at Erpent&rsquo;s retreating back. He lowered his voice. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s all in the papers I gave you. The last five pages. If you value your lives, read them.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Come on!&rdquo; Erpent shouted. &ldquo;We&rsquo;ve got souls to save!&rdquo;</p>
<p>We looked up. He had stopped marching and stood, legs apart, staring back at us.</p>
<p>I weighed the report in my hand. There had to be at least a ream of paper there. &ldquo;Last five pages, huh?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green bent down and pretended to tie his shoe. &ldquo;For the love of the Prophet, Doctor, just tell us what the weapon was!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The coroner&rsquo;s smile tightened a notch. He whispered so softly I could barely catch it. &ldquo;Why, a pizza slicer, of course. A razor-sharp pizza wheel.&rdquo;</p>
<p class="chapter">Eight</p>
<p>All this talk of poo and now you&rsquo;ve got to go? Put the gag back in, Corporal. You can quit squirming in your chair, Mister Broadcaster Mouthpiece of the Ludicrously Overweight French People. No one goes potty until I&rsquo;m done talking. That applies to all you out there in the studio audience too, you hear?</p>
<p>It&rsquo;s a disgusting habit, by the way. Defecating several times a day. And one that you eliminate when you go on the air-only diet. No, I&rsquo;m not going to let them take the handcuffs off you. If your ass crack gets sticky that&rsquo;s not my problem. Let it be a reminder to all of you to start eating air.</p>
<p>It&rsquo;s all right, let him holler. I understand his anger. I feel sorry for him. Are you translating this? The strong emotion you&rsquo;re feeling now is rage caused by calories. Until you learn to eat nothing but air, you will never experience the peace and tranquility that the pure oxygen diet brings.</p>
<p>We left the morgue. I drove, and struggled to keep my attention on the road. My Twinkie was singing again. Green perused the papers Juicy had given us. Erpent gave me directions, all the while trying to turn around and see what my partner had found.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sit still,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m trying to read.&rdquo; He held the papers up against the SS man&rsquo;s back, and skimmed the last five pages. Then he went back and read them again.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Pull over. Now.&rdquo; Erpent reached for the door handle and had shoes on the ground before I&rsquo;d fully stopped.</p>
<p>I parked in a no-parking zone and killed the engine. Green looked up.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are we doing here?&rdquo; he asked.</p>
<p>The Lincoln Memorial gleamed in the early morning light.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Visiting the NSA,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;What do you think?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I pulled myself out of the Smart Car. Erpent was already halfway up the marble steps, the bag of poo bouncing against his leg. Green and I trailed after him.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You know the other murders the coroner mentioned?&rdquo; Green asked. He kept his voice low.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The pizza dealers. Sure.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Remember what happened to Detective Ribbs?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I nodded. &ldquo;I knew his partner, Soss. Found their bones in a cannibal barbecue pit, didn&rsquo;t they?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And Lieutenant Franks and his two patrolmen?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What about them?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;How did Franks die?&rdquo; Green insisted, his face tense.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Him and the Beens brothers got put through a sausage grinder,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;What are you getting at?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;They were all investigating pizza murders.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I tried to concentrate, but my Twinkie was humming again. &ldquo;I still don&rsquo;t see.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Don&rsquo;t you?&rdquo; He grabbed my arm so hard it hurt. &ldquo;Every cop who gets close gets eaten by cannibals.&rdquo; He pulled those last five pages from his trench coat pocket. &ldquo;Look at this.&rdquo; A photo showed a pizza dealer murdered on the steps of the Capitol. &ldquo;Same MO. Identical wounds. Body covered in pizza vomit.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And the other murder?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Same. Right outside the Supreme Food Court Building.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Can&rsquo;t we get a DNA match on the killer from his vomit?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green shook his head. &ldquo;Same thing happened. Body got cleaned of all traces between the crime scene and the morgue.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s the holdup?&rdquo; Erpent shouted from the top of the stairs. He raised the bag of poo above his head, turned and entered the shrine.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You thinking what I&rsquo;m thinking, partner mine?&rdquo; He jerked a thumb up at the SS agent.</p>
<p>&ldquo;That it&rsquo;s time to eat some air?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green grabbed me by the back of my head. &ldquo;Don&rsquo;t be so naive, Frolick. The SS is going to try to kill us.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I pulled away. &ldquo;But we&rsquo;re on the same side,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Why would they do that?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;A cover-up.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Harry&hellip; You&rsquo;re being paranoid. What do they have to cover up?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent appeared again above us. &ldquo;You coming or not?&rdquo; he called out. This time he waited.</p>
<p>&ldquo;On our way!&rdquo; my partner shouted. To me: &ldquo;We are in some serious doo-doo. You trust me?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sure I do,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;With my life. You know that.&rdquo;</p>
<p>On several occasions he had dragged me from gunfights with desperate food terrists who refused to go to Fat Camp. If it weren&rsquo;t for him, I&rsquo;d be dead by now. Our Laxafiers were no match for the actual bullets criminals used.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Then follow my lead,&rdquo; he said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Why?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;What are you going to do?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green resumed his climb. &ldquo;I have no idea.&rdquo;</p>
<p>We joined Erpent at the top of the stairs and entered the memorial. He led us around to the back of the statue. We stared up at the smooth marble surface.</p>
<p>My partner coughed. &ldquo;Now is really not the time to play tourist. You want to go to the NSA, let&rsquo;s get a move on.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent unzipped his fly and took out his wee-wee. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re already there,&rdquo; he said. He stroked himself, and inserted his erect member into a small hole in the stone. &ldquo;Biometrics,&rdquo; he explained. He pumped himself into Lincoln&rsquo;s butt until a back door swung open, revealing a set of stairs that led down into the earth.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Holy air,&rdquo; I breathed. &ldquo;Who knew?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The SS man zipped up. &ldquo;This facility is Top Top Super Double Dip Hot Fudge Sundae With A Cherry On Top Secret,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;There are only a handful of security classifications higher. Before we proceed, you must swear on your service copies of <em>Food-Free At Last</em> never to divulge what you are about to see.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I took out my copy of the Prophet&rsquo;s book. Harry couldn&rsquo;t find his, so we swore together on mine.</p>
<p>Erpent gestured down at the stairwell. &ldquo;Gentlemen,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;After you.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I went first. The stairs were dimly lit and curved out of sight. Behind me, Green said, &ldquo;Isn&rsquo;t there a front door we can use?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We&rsquo;re at war against the Terror of Food,&rdquo; Erpent said. His tone of voice hardened. &ldquo;Secrecy is of vital importance.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I thought it was the Tyranny of Food,&rdquo; my partner said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Do not quibble with me, Agent Green. Both are true.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;In that case,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;Won&rsquo;t you do the honor of leading us?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent huffed, but must have decided not to press the point, as I soon felt his bony frame bump into my back. Green joined us, and the door swung shut with a click. He spun around, searching for a handle or doorknob, but found nothing.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Entrance only,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;Only way out&rsquo;s the other side.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I hope so,&rdquo; Green said, and rested a hand on the butt of his Laxafier.</p>
<p>I caught his eye and shook my head. He relaxed, but kept his hand on his revolver. The three of us marched in single file down into the darkness. At the bottom we came to an elevator.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Press the call button,&rdquo; the SS agent ordered.</p>
<p>Green&rsquo;s glance fell to the man&rsquo;s service weapon, but Erpent kept his hands clasped together behind his back. Green mouthed the words, &ldquo;It&rsquo;s a trap.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Was Erpent really going to try to kill us? I found that hard to believe. No man that thin was capable of evil. I dismissed my partner&rsquo;s paranoid cynicism with one hand, pressed the call button with the other. From deep inside the earth came a humming sound. A bell chimed, and the doors opened.</p>
<p>We looked back at Erpent.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Not many civilians alive today have ever ridden the NSA elevator,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Besides the SS, of course.&rdquo; His smile was thin and hard. &ldquo;Truly the Prophet has blessed you both. Please.&rdquo; He gestured for us to step inside.</p>
<p>We did. Erpent followed. The doors slid shut. To Green&rsquo;s evident surprise, the man turned his back on us.</p>
<p>The SS agent slid his wee-wee into another hole in the wall. He pressed the down button. There was no up button, I noticed.</p>
<p>Without warning, and before I could dissuade him, my partner grabbed Erpent in a head lock and fumbled for the man&rsquo;s Laxafier. The bag of poo flopped at our feet.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are you doing?&rdquo; Erpent cried, his wee-wee pressed deep inside the biometric console. He clawed at Green&rsquo;s elbow. &ldquo;In the name of the Prophet, desist!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I don&rsquo;t plan on being food for cannibals,&rdquo; my partner growled.</p>
<p>The SS agent&rsquo;s face turned purple. &ldquo;What cannibals?&rdquo; he gasped, beating weakly at Green&rsquo;s forearms.</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s right. Deny it. Now when that door opens, you are going to get us out of here. Is that clear?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent struggled to get free but failed. &ldquo;If I refuse?&rdquo; he managed.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I&rsquo;ll cut off your weenie and use it to get through the biometric stations.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Frolick,&rdquo; the SS man said, his voice faint. &ldquo;Help me. I&rsquo;m trying to bring down Fatso, same as you.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I drew my service weapon.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Don&rsquo;t listen to him, Frolick!&rdquo; my partner shouted.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Eat you,&rdquo; Erpent swore. Green slammed the man&rsquo;s head against the elevator wall.</p>
<p>What was I supposed to do? What if Erpent was telling the truth? Then we were committing treason. I was destroying my only chance to bring down Fatso, and eradicate the local Twinkie population. But what if my partner was right? What if it really was a trap? Before I could make up my mind, the elevator lurched to a halt, the doors opened, and we had bigger problems to deal with.</p>
<p>Two big problems, to be specific. Burly men in jungle camouflage carrying laxative Uzis at port arms. They took one look at Erpent&rsquo;s wee-wee flapping in the breeze, Green&rsquo;s elbow under the man&rsquo;s chin and our drawn Laxafiers, and they leveled their weapons at us.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Down and lick the floor!&rdquo; one shouted. Three chevrons adorned his sleeve.</p>
<p>I held up my badge. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s OK,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;ATFF. Tracking down a major French Food Mafia figure.&rdquo;</p>
<p>They threw me on the floor and took my gun and badge. Erpent and Green landed at my side.</p>
<p>&ldquo;This is all a misunderstanding,&rdquo; Erpent said, lifting his head off the ground. &ldquo;If you&rsquo;ll just allow me to&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Lick the mothereating floor!&rdquo; the sergeant screamed. &ldquo;Down! Do it! Now!&rdquo; He jammed the barrel of his Uzi into Erpent&rsquo;s butt crack. &ldquo;Or I&rsquo;ll pump you so full of laxative you&rsquo;ll have hemorrhoids the size of dinner plates!&rdquo;</p>
<p>We licked the floor. Dust stuck to my tongue. I tried not to swallow, in case there were calories mixed in with the dirt. Shoes clacked toward us down the hall. They came to a halt inches from my head.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Intruders, sir,&rdquo; the sergeant said. He held out our badges. &ldquo;Pair of ATFF, one Skinny Service.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The SS?&rdquo; A note of surprise.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I have access,&rdquo; Erpent hissed from the floor. &ldquo;The Thin House cleared it with the General this morning. Or how do you think I got down here?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;This is an Air Force base,&rdquo; the officer said. &ldquo;Maybe up there you&rsquo;re somebody. Down here you&rsquo;re not worth a food terrist&rsquo;s stinky poo. Now shut up.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The only sound was the three of us cleaning the floor with our tongues. One by one the newcomer examined our badges and laid them on a nearby table. I fidgeted. My throat was getting dry. What if Green was right? What if they were going to grind us into sausages?</p>
<p>&ldquo;On your feet.&rdquo;</p>
<p>We got up, scraping the grit from our tongues. Green spat on the floor.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No spitting!&rdquo; the sergeant yelled. &ldquo;Show some mothereating respect.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The officer gave us back our badges, but left our weapons on the table. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s all right, Sergeant,&rdquo; he said. He kicked a bucket toward us. &ldquo;Here. Use this.&rdquo;</p>
<p>We all spat in the bucket. The lieutenant was almost as skinny as Erpent. He wore Air Force blues. Balloons the size of contraband candy apples rose from the epaulets of his shirt. A first lieutenant&rsquo;s silver stripe ran down the front of each. Rumor had it the Air Force filled officers&rsquo; rank balloons with helium, and at military parties they&rsquo;d inhale their own rank balloons and talk in high squeaky voices. My gaze dropped to his name tag. &ldquo;Lieutenant Krapp,&rdquo; it read. A division insignia I had never seen before was pinned to his shirtfront. It was gold and roughly the size and shape of a poo.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are you staring at, Agent Frolick?&rdquo; Krapp demanded.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Nothing, Lieutenant,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;I was just wondering what that insignia you&rsquo;re wearing means.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The officer crossed the room in two strides and stood toe to toe with me. His rank balloons bobbled against my face and shoulders.</p>
<p>&ldquo;This insignia?&rdquo; he said softly. He tapped it with his forefinger. It had been polished until it gleamed. &ldquo;This insignia means we are the last line of defense. We are here to protect people like you from the food terrists out there who are salivating for a chance to attack this great country.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He punched the air and grunted, &ldquo;Poo-AHH!&rdquo; The two guards echoed the exclamation.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I thought that was our job at the ATFF,&rdquo; I protested.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Not even close,&rdquo; he said with a sneer. &ldquo;This insignia represents the most cutting-edge technology. The very existence of our unit is Tip Top Tippity Top Golden Poo In A Bidet Secret. You understand what I&rsquo;m telling you?&rdquo;</p>
<p>We shuffled our feet for a moment, looked at each other. Erpent shrugged.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Um&hellip;no,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It means we don&rsquo;t exist!&rdquo; he bellowed. &ldquo;We are a figment of your imagination! And I&rsquo;ll thank you to remember it!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But isn&rsquo;t this the NSA?&rdquo; Green asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Poo-AHH!&rdquo; the two guards grunted.</p>
<p>The lieutenant went silent. His eyes bulged from his head. &ldquo;That&rsquo;s Tip Top Tippity Top Golden Poo In A Bidet Secret!&rdquo; he screamed at my partner. &ldquo;How do you know that?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green jerked his thumb at Erpent. &ldquo;He told us.&rdquo;</p>
<p>For the first time, Erpent looked unsure of himself. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m sorry,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I thought it was only Top Top Super Double Dip Hot Fudge Sundae With A Cherry On Top Secret.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The lieutenant snorted. &ldquo;Well, you were wrong.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So what&rsquo;s so special about the NSA?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;They spy on ferrners&rsquo; sewer systems. Everyone knows that.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Krapp grinned. &ldquo;Is that what you know?&rdquo; he whispered. &ldquo;Is that what you think you know?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;They don&rsquo;t know poo,&rdquo; the sergeant scoffed.</p>
<p>Erpent protested, &ldquo;But I was personally briefed this morning by the Prophet&rsquo;s National Security Advisor&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Who is what? A general with only four stars?&rdquo; The lieutenant spat. &ldquo;You know nothing.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green cleared his throat. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re obviously not welcome here,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;We won&rsquo;t take up any more of your time. If you&rsquo;ll show us where the exit is, we&rsquo;ll go.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The lieutenant squared his shoulders. &ldquo;The General is not happy about this intrusion,&rdquo; he snapped. &ldquo;My orders are to take you to him. Come along.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He turned on his heels and walked back down the hall. Erpent tucked himself into his pants, straightened up and followed after the junior officer. Green and I fell into step behind the other two.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Still think it&rsquo;s a trap?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;If they&rsquo;re letting us live, it&rsquo;s because they want us to be patsies. That&rsquo;s why they chose us. They need a pair of fall guys when this investigation fails.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Don&rsquo;t be so cynical, Harry,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Of course we aren&rsquo;t going to fail.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;All I know,&rdquo; he said, keeping his voice low, &ldquo;is that if the Air Force is involved, we&rsquo;re screwed.&rdquo;</p>
<p>For you ferrners out there unfamiliar with the military structure that makes our great Empire of Air possible, the Prophet centralized all our armed forces under the Unified Strategic Air Command during his first year in office: the Air Force Marine Corps; the Air Force Army, Navy and Coast Guard; the Air Force NSA and CIA; the Air Force Merchant Marine; the Air Force Geological Survey; the Air Force Irish Dancers; and so on. Some people, traitors mostly, asked what all this military expenditure was for. Who were we going to fight? That sort of remark will get you put in Fat Camp until the War is over. What these people don&rsquo;t understand is that the Air Force is the most powerful force for good this world has ever seen. These are the brave men and women who risk their lives to promote American values&mdash;I mean Airitarian values&mdash;all around the world. Like Truth, Justice and the Air-Eating Way.</p>
<p>So while Green walked down that corridor all nervous, I strode forward to my destiny, knowing I was going to meet a general, one of our greatest military leaders in the Global War on Fat.</p>
<p>The lieutenant made a right turn and led us down a slope. The corridor widened and dead-ended at a round chrome door twenty feet high. On both sides concrete pillboxes protruded from the wall. Their narrow slits bristled with Laxafier automatic rifle barrels. The guns twitched at our approach, aiming their high-powered laxative loads at our bellies.</p>
<p>Krapp approached a biometric reader in the wall and unzipped his fly. He put his wee-wee in the hole and thrust himself in and out, his belt buckle clacking against the concrete wall each time. He humped the hole for long minutes before uttering a cry and going still.</p>
<p>The chrome vault door opened with a hiss. A hubbub of voices burbled forth&mdash;the sound of thousands of people talking at once, fingers tapping at keyboards, lips slurping up caffeinated air. But one noise dominated the rest: the gurgling of a flushing toilet.</p>
<p>&ldquo;This way,&rdquo; Krapp grunted. He zipped up his fly. He seemed a bit dazed.</p>
<p>I looked behind us. The two guards stood there, laxative Uzis pointed at our bottoms.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Get moving,&rdquo; the sergeant said.</p>
<p>I took the steps two at a time up to the vault door. &ldquo;Come on,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Let&rsquo;s see what the fuss is all about.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I guess we don&rsquo;t really have a choice,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No,&rdquo; the sergeant said. &ldquo;You don&rsquo;t.&rdquo;</p>
<p class="chapter">Nine</p>
<p>We stepped through the vault door and gasped. Before us stretched an underground bunker several football fields long. Every square foot was covered by giant copper tanks, laboratory equipment and computers. Air Force technicians in lab smocks and goggles swarmed about the space. The ceiling was ten stories high. The gurgling noise came from there. Pipes the size of sewer mains dropped from overhead and branched off until they connected with the copper tanks.</p>
<p>On a dais in the center of the room stood a man. Rank balloons the size of small cars rose from the epaulets of his dress uniform. The balloons were covered in stars.</p>
<p>Opposite him on the wall hung an enormous screen. It showed a map of the US. Lines and dots of different colors covered the terrain. &ldquo;Sewer Systems of the United States of Air,&rdquo; proclaimed the map key.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Gentlemen,&rdquo; the lieutenant said. &ldquo;Welcome to the NSA. Now quit your gawking and get a move on.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He waited for us beside a copper tank with a window in the side. The tank was filling up with a brown liquid.</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;A-OOO-gah! A-OOO-gah! A-OOO-gah!&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>A klaxon sounded. Behind us, the vault door closed. The three of us scrambled off the threshold and into the great chamber.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Titanium deadbolts,&rdquo; Krapp remarked. &ldquo;Fifty feet of reinforced concrete. We are impervious to nuclear attack here, gentlemen. Nothing&mdash;and no one&mdash;gets in or out of the National Sewer Agency without the General&rsquo;s say-so.&rdquo; He about-faced, held his head high and marched toward the dais.</p>
<p>We followed, staring curiously around. We passed a bank of computer consoles. The technicians were crowded around a monitor, watching a movie. Two butt cheeks filled most of the screen, plus some genitalia, two legs and a triangular gap of light. A dark spot got bigger, then&mdash;<em>plop!</em> A turd floated across the camera lens. On another screen, a stream of urine clouded the image. What a strange movie, I thought. Was this art house cinema?</p>
<p>We approached the dais. The General stood with his back toward us, leaning over the chrome railing. An Air Force officer with a major&rsquo;s watermelon-sized rank balloons stood at ground level, reading a report.</p>
<p>&ldquo;&hellip;and in Paris, Operation Dog Poo Baguette was a success, revealing the dietary habits and fecal composition of the president&rsquo;s inner circle&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>A sergeant-at-arms stopped us with a white-gloved hand. He wore spats over flip-flops and an inflated yellow duck around his waist. The lieutenant whispered to him. Meanwhile, the major droned on, &ldquo;And in China, our operative code name Spicy Sichuan Chopsticks was able to infiltrate a chain of noodle stores&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>The sergeant-at-arms reached up and pulled on the General&rsquo;s pant leg.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Hold it, Major.&rdquo; The General turned to face us. &ldquo;Who interrupts my midmorning snack?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General&rsquo;s uniform dazzled me. His medals and service ribbons covered both sides of his chest, spread across his stomach, up both sleeves and down his pants. There were even service ribbons on his shoes. Gold braid thick enough to moor an oil tanker draped under both armpits. The peak of his cap rose a yard in the air, and the bill jutted out a foot.</p>
<p>Plus he was fat. Bigger even than Fatso. I frowned. Weren&rsquo;t we at War on Fat? Surely a general should have superhuman faith, and a waistline to match. Then I spotted the golden tape measure around his belly, and did a double take. His faith was superhuman, all right. Eleven inches! Almost as skinny as the Prophet himself.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Lieutenant Krapp,&rdquo; our escort announced. &ldquo;Civilians to see you, sir sir sir sir sir.&rdquo; He flung out an open palm. &ldquo;Go the Power of Air!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General returned the salute. &ldquo;I got no time for civilians, Lieutenant. Tell them to come back later.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sir sir sir sir sir,&rdquo; Krapp said. &ldquo;One of them is Skinny Service. Here by orders of the Thin House. Thought you&rsquo;d like to know, sir sir sir sir sir.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Interruptions are bad for the digestion,&rdquo; the General grumbled. He put something in his jacket pocket and swung himself over the chrome railing onto the shoulders of the sergeant-at-arms. The enlisted man&rsquo;s face turned purple. He knelt down and set his cargo on the ground. The General stood up and brushed what looked like crumbs but were no doubt dandruff from the front of his tunic.</p>
<p>I stepped forward and held out my hand. &ldquo;Can I just say what an honor it is to meet someone so successful at eating air?&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Please share your faith with us before we go. To see you so skinny&hellip;&rdquo; I was overwhelmed by his waistline, the dandruff on his lapels, the sandwich peeking out of his jacket pocket, a challenge, I was sure, to keep himself honest. &ldquo;I wish I could eat air like you.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Well you know, son,&rdquo; the General said, and took my hand, &ldquo;we aren&rsquo;t called the Air Force for nothing.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent jostled me aside. &ldquo;We bring you orders from the Prophet.&rdquo; He held up the biohazard bag.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s dead French spy poo,&rdquo; I added proudly.</p>
<p>The major frowned. His name, I saw, was Major Turdd. &ldquo;Forgive me, General, allow me to explain the protocol?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;By all means, Major.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Major Turdd addressed the three of us civilians. &ldquo;It is standard military protocol to address the NSA commander at all times as &lsquo;sir sir sir sir sir.&rsquo;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Isn&rsquo;t one &lsquo;sir&rsquo; enough?&rdquo; Green asked.</p>
<p>The lieutenant swung an arm up at the General&rsquo;s rank balloons. &ldquo;He&rsquo;s a twenty-five-star general,&rdquo; he hissed. &ldquo;One &lsquo;sir&rsquo; for every five stars.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That must take an awful long time to say,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It used to be one &lsquo;sir&rsquo; for every star,&rdquo; the major explained, &ldquo;but it was decided that in battlefield conditions that might not be desirable. For instance.&rdquo; He turned to face the General. &ldquo;&lsquo;The food terrists are attacking, sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir sir!&rsquo;&rdquo; He turned back to us. &ldquo;You see? That&rsquo;s why it got shortened to just one &lsquo;sir&rsquo; for every five stars.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Couldn&rsquo;t we just address him as &lsquo;General&rsquo;?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You could if that were his rank,&rdquo; Lieutenant Krapp said, and laughed.</p>
<p>I scratched my head. &ldquo;But didn&rsquo;t you just say you were taking us to see the General?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Krapp stood to attention. &ldquo;Sorry, sir sir sir sir sir. It&rsquo;s just they&rsquo;re civilians, sir sir sir sir sir, and to explain to them how we&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;At air,&rdquo; the General said with a smile. &ldquo;Perfectly understandable. In your position I would have done the same thing.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The lieutenant shuffled his feet. &ldquo;Thank you, sir sir sir sir sir.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And I&rsquo;m sure you will enjoy your new career as a poo detector specialist, installing equipment in the sewers,&rdquo; the General said, and added, &ldquo;Airman First Class Krapp.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The color drained from the lieutenant&rsquo;s face. He reached up and untied the rank balloons from his shoulders. They floated up into the air until they bumped into the ceiling far above.</p>
<p>The General smiled at us. &ldquo;There are, after all, only a handful of twenty-five-star generals in the US Air Force. We have to maintain a certain prestige.&rdquo; He threw out his chest, clicked his heels together and said, &ldquo;Director of the Department of Homeland Air Security, Protector of Our Precious Air, Head of the Toilet Safety Administration, Commander of NORAD and our Nuclear Arsenal, I-SEE-FAT Call Center Supervisor, Poo Propulsion Laboratory Test-Pilot-in-Chief, Striker of Fear in the Breasts of Food Terrists Everywhere, Leader of the NSA, CIA, DIA, MIA, and WTF, Exalted High Almighty General of Generals Full O&rsquo;Shitt at your service.&rdquo; He bowed. &ldquo;Full O&rsquo;Shitt is my <em>nom de guerre,</em> of course.&rdquo; He parted his service ribbons to reveal the hidden name tag.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Thank you, sir sir sir sir,&rdquo; I began. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re here to&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s &lsquo;sir sir sir sir <em>sir,&rsquo;&rdquo;</em> corrected the former lieutenant.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are you still doing here?&rdquo; Major Turdd barked. &ldquo;Report to the Poo Detector Installation Brigade. Double time, march!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Newly minted Airman First Class Krapp about-faced and marched off.</p>
<p>Erpent thrust the bag of poo in the General&rsquo;s face. &ldquo;Analyze this.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Major Turdd stepped forward. &ldquo;May I ask what this is all about?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Your orders are to drop what you are doing,&rdquo; Erpent said, &ldquo;and find Fatso.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Finding Fatso is foremost forever in our minds,&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt said. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re doing all we can.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What do you mean you&rsquo;re doing all you can?&rdquo; Erpent exclaimed. &ldquo;How many bazillion gazillion dollars do we give the NSA every year?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And we need every gazillion,&rdquo; the General calmly replied. &ldquo;You think every man, woman, child and donkey working here isn&rsquo;t motivated by one single thought&mdash;Get Fatso?&rdquo;</p>
<p>I looked around. Indeed, in one corner a herd of donkeys trotted around in a circle. Several small boys walked behind them. As I watched, a donkey did a big poo, and the trailing boy caught it in a plastic bag.</p>
<p>Erpent crossed his arms. &ldquo;What about Total Poo Awareness?&rdquo; he asked. &ldquo;Surely you have some idea where he is.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General coughed into his hand. &ldquo;TPA is classified.&rdquo; He glanced at us.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Tappity Tippity Tappity Smores Go Crunch Round The Campfire Secret,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;Yes. I know. Green and Frolick were cleared by the Prophet himself.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s Total Poo Awareness?&rdquo; Green asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;TPA,&rdquo; the General said, &ldquo;is why the NSA exists. Our goal is to know who&rsquo;s pooing, where they poo, what it&rsquo;s shaped like, what it smells like, what it consists of. Only then can we finally smash food terrism once and for all.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And you still have no idea where he is?&rdquo; Erpent said, his voice mounting toward hysteria.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Every sewer tap around the world is programmed to alert us at the first sign of our arch-nemesis,&rdquo; the General added. &ldquo;He so much as farts we&rsquo;ll know he&rsquo;s there.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Only problem is he hasn&rsquo;t farted,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>The General nodded sadly. &ldquo;It&rsquo;s like he&rsquo;s a ghost or something.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You&rsquo;ve had two years at this post,&rdquo; Erpent said, shaking his finger in the General&rsquo;s face. &ldquo;If you still can&rsquo;t tell me what I need to know, maybe it&rsquo;s time the NSA had a new commander.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Listen to me,&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt said. &ldquo;Every day we gather data on billions of people around the world. See those pipes?&rdquo; He pointed at the plumbing that snaked above our heads.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What about them?&rdquo; Erpent snapped.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Some connect straight to the D.C. sewer. Others connect to storage tanks. Millions of gallons of sewer samples awaiting our analysis. From all over the world. I got Tokyo sushi poo, I got Paris bistro <em>merde,</em> I got Moscow borscht crap&mdash;I got it all.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And in all that poo you can&rsquo;t find one man?&rdquo; Erpent shouted.</p>
<p>&ldquo;We sweep up vast amounts of data,&rdquo; the General protested. &ldquo;We&rsquo;re busy trying to&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You&rsquo;re busy wasting my time,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;You find Fatso for me now. Today. Or what you just did to that lieutenant? I&rsquo;ll see the Prophet does you worse.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General&rsquo;s jovial features narrowed. &ldquo;It is unwise to threaten me. The Prophet ought to know that by now.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Oh yeah?&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;When he&rsquo;s through with you, you&rsquo;ll be cleaning out latrines with your tongue. Do I make myself clear, Airman Third Class O&rsquo;Shitt?&rdquo;</p>
<p>He tapped the General&rsquo;s right rank balloon to emphasize his point&mdash;with the ragged fingernail I spotted in the morgue. A loud explosion made me duck. When I opened my eyes, shreds of balloon trailed from the General&rsquo;s right shoulder. O&rsquo;Shitt sank down on one knee, scuffing the service ribbons on his pants. His left side was held aloft by the remaining rank balloon, but it was not enough to keep him on his feet.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Replacement balloon!&rdquo; Major Turdd bellowed. &ldquo;Replacement balloon for the NSA commander!&rdquo; He pressed a red button on the side of the dais. A siren blared. Across the crowded floor, a team of Air Force Marines shoved their way through the milling technicians, bearing a new twenty-five-star rank balloon with them.</p>
<p>The General and Erpent eyed each other warily as we waited for the replacement balloon to arrive. The major grabbed hold of the General&rsquo;s right side, but could not lift him back to his feet.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Too much air,&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt mumbled.</p>
<p>Turdd pleaded with us. &ldquo;Help me.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green and I managed to get the General back on his feet. For someone so skinny he sure weighed an awful lot. An Air Force Marine cut away the rubber shreds that dangled from the General&rsquo;s shoulder and fastened a new balloon to the right epaulet.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Thank you, men,&rdquo; the General said.</p>
<p>The team of six Marines stood to attention and saluted in unison. &ldquo;Sir sir sir sir sir!&rdquo; they shouted, then about-faced and marched back to wherever they came from.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Would you turn that off, please, Major?&rdquo; the General said.</p>
<p>Turdd pressed the red button again and the alarm stopped. The bunker was once more filled with the sounds of typing technicians and slurping machinery.</p>
<p>The General drew himself up straight. &ldquo;You&rsquo;ve made your point,&rdquo; he said to Erpent.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Excellent,&rdquo; the SS agent replied. &ldquo;You&rsquo;ll find Fatso for us, then?&rdquo;</p>
<p>O&rsquo;Shitt snapped his fingers. The sergeant-at-arms came to attention.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Take this poo to the Plumber,&rdquo; the General ordered.</p>
<p>The sergeant-at-arms gulped loudly and clutched his yellow duck. &ldquo;The Plumber, sir sir sir sir sir?&rdquo; He accepted the bag of poo with a shaking hand.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Immediate analysis. Auth Code Eggnog ApplePie Twinkie Milkshake Eggnog. Now move!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The sergeant-at-arms saluted and shuffled off, his flip-flops slapping against the floor.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Now,&rdquo; the General said. He turned to Erpent, and tucked his triple chins into his chest. &ldquo;I think it&rsquo;s time the Thin House learned exactly what we do here at the NSA.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent glared back. &ldquo;You took the air right out of my mouth.&rdquo;</p>
<p>O&rsquo;Shitt led us over to an open tank of water. An empty toilet stood on either side. I peered over the edge of the tank. A pair of what looked like eels slumbered on the bottom.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Wireless toilet cams,&rdquo; the General declared proudly. &ldquo;The next generation of sewer monitoring technology. Drop them into the sewer, and they will find their way to their preprogrammed destinations. Eliminates the need for Air Force Navy frogmen.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He pressed a button on the side of the tank. Within seconds, the toilet cams found the open pipes to the toilets and wriggled out of sight. We crowded around the nearest toilet.</p>
<p>&ldquo;See here?&rdquo; The General&rsquo;s fat finger pointed at a brown speck at the bottom of the bowl. &ldquo;The tip of its head has a tiny camera attached to it.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So that&rsquo;s how you got those pictures of people pooing,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Precisely,&rdquo; the General answered. &ldquo;With this new technology, we can have a toilet cam in every toilet of your house&mdash;even, say, the Thin House,&rdquo; &mdash;he glanced at Erpent as he said this&mdash; &ldquo;lying in wait to film a food terrist in the act of defecation.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent gasped. &ldquo;How long has this been going on?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We&rsquo;ve got toilet cams in every major sewer in the world,&rdquo; the General continued, ignoring the question. &ldquo;Three months ago, we let loose several million toilet cams into the D.C. sewer system.&rdquo; He grinned. &ldquo;We know everything.&rdquo; He bent toward Erpent, his grin widening. &ldquo;I know where you poo and what you eat&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Now wait just a chocolate-licking minute&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;&mdash;and what you mutter under your breath when you sit on the potty.&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt pitched his voice high. &ldquo;Ma-ma. Ma-ma.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I do not say that!&rdquo; Erpent turned on us, fists clenched. Our snickering continued. &ldquo;I do not say &lsquo;mama&rsquo; on the potty!&rdquo; He pulled at his hair. &ldquo;What am I saying? I don&rsquo;t even use the toilet!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General tapped his temple with a pudgy finger. &ldquo;The NSA knows all.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;These are serious accusations,&rdquo; Erpent protested. &ldquo;You can&rsquo;t just&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We know everything that goes on in the Thin House,&rdquo; the General said. He lowered his voice. &ldquo;Everything.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent went silent. He fumbled for his cell phone.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No signal down here, I&rsquo;m afraid,&rdquo; the General said. &ldquo;You&rsquo;ll have to wait until you leave&hellip;whenever that happens to be.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent gulped and put the phone away.</p>
<p>O&rsquo;Shitt held his arms above his head, embracing the Disneyland of wonder that surrounded us. &ldquo;Gentlemen, from this bunker I can destroy the world with nuclear weapons or watch the president of France go potty. Like our motto says.&rdquo; He tapped his shoulder patch. It read, &ldquo;Omniscience. Omnipotence. Your Poohole.&rdquo; He beamed at us. &ldquo;This is Total Poo Awareness at its finest.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Let me get this straight,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;You&rsquo;re spying on innocent people, taking pictures of them going poo-poo, without a warrant?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General chuckled. &ldquo;Oh, they&rsquo;re not innocent,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Only food terrists ever go poo-poo.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But it&rsquo;s an invasion of privacy!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General&rsquo;s grin disappeared. &ldquo;The Global War on Fat requires us to make certain sacrifices, Agent Green,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Food terrists would kill us for the right to eat food again. But don&rsquo;t panic!&rdquo; He grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me. &ldquo;Be alert. Not alarmed.&rdquo;</p>
<p>An unshaven man in greasy blue coveralls staggered into view, yawning. He carried a large metal toolbox that appeared to be handcuffed to his wrist. In the other hand he carried a lug wrench.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Yo, Fat Man,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I found your evil twin.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The man must be myopic. Couldn&rsquo;t he see the General&rsquo;s tape measure? &ldquo;You mean Fatso?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Who else you think I mean?&rdquo; He turned to go. &ldquo;Well you coming or arentcha?&rdquo;</p>
<p class="chapter">Ten</p>
<p>The General led us across the crowded bunker toward the largest copper tank I&rsquo;d seen so far. The Plumber, whoever he was, had gone on ahead.</p>
<p>O&rsquo;Shitt cleared his throat. &ldquo;I know he doesn&rsquo;t look like much. But he has a PhD from MITT.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Not the Massachusetts Institute of Toilet Technology!&rdquo; I exclaimed.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The very same.&rdquo; The General nodded. &ldquo;He&rsquo;s one of the old-school NSA prodigies. All brains, no social skills. Some say he&rsquo;s smarter than Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking put together.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Wow,&rdquo; I breathed. &ldquo;He must be one hell of a plumber.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Only thing is, he hates the Air Force. Thinks we never should have taken over the Agency.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So why do you put up with him?&rdquo; Erpent asked.</p>
<p>The General waved a hand at the apparatus that surrounded us. &ldquo;These machines? He invented them all. Designed the first plumbing-computer interface. Without him, the National Sewer Agency in its current form would not exist.&rdquo;</p>
<p>We approached the copper tank. The Plumber was on his knees. He had unlocked the handcuffs and was connecting a series of pipes to his toolbox. Without warning, he lifted his lug wrench in the air and started smashing some nearby tubing.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Leaks! Leaks! Leaks!&rdquo; he screamed. &ldquo;Kill the leaks!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General put his finger to his lips. &ldquo;And whatever you do,&rdquo; he whispered, &ldquo;don&rsquo;t mention the word <em>leaks.</em> He hates leaks.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Major Turdd cleared his throat. &ldquo;You found something?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I found another leak,&rdquo; the Plumber said, panting with exertion. &ldquo;If it weren&rsquo;t for you Air Force bubbleheads, there wouldn&rsquo;t be any leaks.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Come now,&rdquo; the General said. &ldquo;Do you really think that&rsquo;s fair?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You morons wouldn&rsquo;t know the difference between a lug nut and a lug wrench if it jumped out of the toilet and bit you on the pitootie.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s so bad about leaks?&rdquo; Green asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Leaks! Leaks! Leaks!&rdquo; the man screamed, and smashed the offending pipes again.</p>
<p>&ldquo;But what&rsquo;s so bad about them?&rdquo; my partner insisted.</p>
<p>&ldquo;So bad about leaks?&rdquo; The man stared at Green like he was speaking a ferrn language. &ldquo;The turd that got away could be the secret to where Fatso is.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I thought you said you found him,&rdquo; Erpent said. He snapped his fingers in the man&rsquo;s face. &ldquo;You know where Fatso is, or don&rsquo;t you?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Please,&rdquo; the General said. &ldquo;Let me manage this.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The Plumber clambered to his feet. &ldquo;Who the poo is this?&rdquo; he asked, peering at Erpent through his thick glasses.</p>
<p>Erpent was ready with his badge. &ldquo;I work directly for the Prophet in the Trapezoidal Office. Now spill.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Do you know the Auth Code?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What Auth Code? I don&rsquo;t need an Auth Code. I just told you&mdash;&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Then you know nothing, super skinny,&rdquo; the man sneered.</p>
<p>Erpent stiffened at this rudeness. &ldquo;What is your name, technician?&rdquo; he demanded. &ldquo;I&rsquo;ll put you in Fat Camp for that.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The Plumber straightened his shirtfront. A white name patch fringed with red had been stitched to his left chest. It read, &ldquo;Too Secret For You.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I think they need to hear the song, don&rsquo;t you, Fat Man?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No, please, not the song,&rdquo; the General begged. &ldquo;Anything but that. Please!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You punched a button on a nearby stereo. He grabbed the bag of poo we&rsquo;d brought, now half-empty, and swiveled his hips to the music, the biohazard bag clutched tight to his chest. He sang:</p>
<p>I&rsquo;m too secret for my shirt</p>
<p>too secret for my shirt</p>
<p>so secret it hurts&mdash;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Enough already!&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt bellowed.</p>
<p>But the man continued:</p>
<p>I&rsquo;m too secret for this poo</p>
<p>too secret for this poo</p>
<p>don&rsquo;t you wish you knew who</p>
<p>I am</p>
<p>too secret for the Air Force</p>
<p>too secret for the Air Force</p>
<p>I&rsquo;m an NSA man</p>
<p>Too secret</p>
<p>I&rsquo;m too secret for my&mdash;</p>
<p>Erpent stepped forward and turned off the music. &ldquo;We don&rsquo;t have time for this,&rdquo; he snapped. &ldquo;Did you or did you not find Fatso?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Don&rsquo;t you get pooey with me,&rdquo; Too Secret For You replied. &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t work for the Air Force, and I sure as poo don&rsquo;t work for the Skinny Service.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green stepped between them. &ldquo;This is an extraordinary piece of sewer technology,&rdquo; he said, and gestured up at the copper tank. &ldquo;Is it true you invented all of this?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You banged his lug wrench against the side of the tank. &ldquo;Darn pooing right I did. You don&rsquo;t think the Air Force flyboys are capable of this kind of sewer innovation, do you?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Wow,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Could you give us a demonstration? Too Secret For, umm, Me?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Finally,&rdquo; the man said to the General. &ldquo;People who appreciate what I do for a change.&rdquo;</p>
<p>A funnel descended from one side of the machine. He opened the half-full bag of poo and poured it into the funnel. &ldquo;Always run it twice to be sure,&rdquo; he said, and flipped a switch. A loud farting sound came from a release valve overhead, and we were soon enveloped in a miasma of rotten egg smell.</p>
<p>The General took a deep breath and sighed with pleasure. &ldquo;God I love the smell of poo in the morning.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I looked up at the contraption. &ldquo;But what does it do?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>The Plumber reached up and caressed the copper beast. &ldquo;The Super Dooper Pooper Snooper!&rdquo; he shouted over the din. &ldquo;She can analyze any poo sample you care to give her. With this baby I can tell you where the food came from, where it comes out and who else eats a similar diet.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The farting noise ended. The stench slowly dispersed.</p>
<p>Too Secret For You tapped at the pipes in his toolbox. &ldquo;On screen,&rdquo; he commanded. At the base of the tank, three airmen in lab coats sat in front of computer consoles. One pushed a button.</p>
<p>A monitor built into the side of the tank displayed Jacques Crusteau&rsquo;s dossier. His particulars continued below: date of birth, height, weight, waist circumference, bank accounts, car registration, books taken out of the library&mdash;<em>The Complete Guide To Hydroponics</em> was flagged for our convenience&mdash;plus DVDs rented and TP (Toilet Protocol) addresses of bathrooms across the country where he had gone poo-poo.</p>
<p>Too Secret For You jumped to the Career section. &ldquo;Jacques Crusteau, French Spy,&rdquo; he narrated. &ldquo;Graduated French Spy School, Masters in Sabotage, MPhil in Blackmail, PhD in Assassination. As part of his thesis defense, he whacked the president of Famishedton, a small war-torn former French colony in West Africa.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Fascinating,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;But what was he doing in the park last night?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What do you think, Agent Stupid?&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;What does a French assassin normally do across the street from the Thin House?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I dunno,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Feed the ducks?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Feeding the ducks is illegal, moron. Besides, there aren&rsquo;t any ducks left.&rdquo; Too Secret For You turned to Green. &ldquo;Is he brain dead or what?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What,&rdquo; my partner replied. &ldquo;He&rsquo;s a believer.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You whooped. &ldquo;You mean there&rsquo;s one left?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are you talking about?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>Too Secret For You said, &ldquo;The assassin was near the Thin House because he wanted to kill the Prophet.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I had to laugh at that. &ldquo;Then he was a lousy assassin!&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;What&rsquo;s he going to do, climb the fence? The SS would take him out. Right, Erpent?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Not likely he&rsquo;d make it over the fence anyway,&rdquo; Too Secret For You said. &ldquo;His poo is full of cancer markers. The guy was terminal. Had a couple weeks left to live, tops.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That makes no sense,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;He&rsquo;s got cancer, so he wants to kill someone?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green lifted his head. &ldquo;Wants to kill&hellip;or wants to be killed?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent was triumphant. &ldquo;You see? I was right.&rdquo;</p>
<p>My partner nodded. &ldquo;Maybe it was a suicide mission.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Of course,&rdquo; I said. Now it made sense. &ldquo;The embarrassment factor.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Which means,&rdquo; Green said, &ldquo;he must have tried to get the whole thing on camera.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You spun back to his toolkit. &ldquo;Let&rsquo;s run this through the psych profiler. If I can find toilet tap videos of this food terrist going ca-ca, I can put together a detailed personality profile.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We can read their ass lips,&rdquo; Major Turdd explained.</p>
<p>On the screen a dozen videos played of someone pooing. The same someone. Too Secret For You tapped furiously away at his toolbox with a screwdriver. &ldquo;How about that,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;You&rsquo;re right. It was a plot to blackmail the&mdash;the buyer. Did you recover the sound and video equipment?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Green shook his head. &ldquo;We didn&rsquo;t find anything. Someone,&rdquo; &mdash;and here he turned to Erpent&mdash; &ldquo;must have cleaned the corpse.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But surely he was transmitting,&rdquo; Too Secret For You insisted. &ldquo;Didn&rsquo;t you find any accomplices nearby?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent coughed. &ldquo;We picked up two French spies, actually. Just a few hundreds yards from the crime scene. They were disguised as mimes.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Why didn&rsquo;t you say so?&rdquo; I exclaimed. &ldquo;Let&rsquo;s go talk to them right away.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Alas,&rdquo; Erpent sighed. &ldquo;There was an accident.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Oh no,&rdquo; I said. I covered my cheeks with my palms. &ldquo;What kind of accident?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;They slipped on an invisible banana peel right in front of a speeding steamroller.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;How horrible!&rdquo; I breathed.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Why didn&rsquo;t you mention this before?&rdquo; Green demanded.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It wasn&rsquo;t relevant to finding Fatso,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;Now can we please avoid these distractions? We have only nineteen hours left!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You looked up at Erpent for a long moment. He cocked his head to one side, and said in falsetto, &ldquo;Ma-ma! Ma-ma!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The Air Force techs laughed and banged their consoles. Erpent drew back a fist, like he was going to take a swing at the man. Before he could do so, Too Secret For You plunged his lug wrench into the toolbox and waggled it back and forth. A map of the US appeared on screen. Bright dots clustered near half a dozen cities.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Each dot,&rdquo; he explained, &ldquo;represents one TP address. One toilet, one poo. Bigger dots, like here,&rdquo; &mdash;he zoomed in on Washington, D.C.&mdash; &ldquo;represent repeated pooings. In his alter ego as Nick Hungry, Crusteau was an important and trusted courier for Fatso. But he was based right here in the District of Crap.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Didn&rsquo;t you hear me before?&rdquo; Erpent barked. &ldquo;Enough about Crusteau. You said you found Fatso. Now where is he?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You reached for the stereo. &ldquo;You need to hear the song again?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General stepped between them. &ldquo;Please, Agent Erpent! I must ask you to be quiet.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s better,&rdquo; Too Secret For You snorted.</p>
<p>He hammered at a tight bolt in his toolbox, and a map of Cuba appeared on the big screen. &ldquo;A long, narrow landmass,&rdquo; he announced. &ldquo;Roughly the shape of a giant turd. Code Name: Poo Island.&rdquo;</p>
<p>A cluster of bright dots glowed across the strait from Florida. The image zoomed in. &ldquo;Havana,&rdquo; he continued. &ldquo;Capital of Poo Island, and center of the Western Hemisphere&rsquo;s biggest food smuggling operation. Run, of course, by Fatso.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;And our boy&rsquo;s been doing ca-ca there recently,&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt said, his arms crossed.</p>
<p>Too Secret For You turned his backside toward the General and farted. &ldquo;Give that man a gold star!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;He already has twenty-five,&rdquo; I exclaimed. &ldquo;But maybe he should get another. If we catch Fatso, perhaps the Prophet will make you a twenty-six-star general.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;There&rsquo;s no such thing as a twenty-six-star general,&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt said gloomily. &ldquo;Twenty-five is as high as it goes.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Then he could create a new rank for you,&rdquo; I suggested. &ldquo;What do you think, Erpent? Would the Prophet go for that?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;The Prophet rewards loyalty and punishes treason,&rdquo; the SS agent said, his eyes half-closed. &ldquo;Something you should all remember.&rdquo; He turned to Too Secret For You. &ldquo;So what was Crusteau doing down in Cuba? Are you saying that&rsquo;s where Fatso is?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;We believe Fatso travels frequently to Cuba to manage his operations there.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You <em>believe?&rdquo;</em> Erpent sneered. &ldquo;You don&rsquo;t <em>know?&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>Too Secret For You glowered back at the SS agent. &ldquo;The only thing we know for sure is this.&rdquo; He twisted a pipe with his wrench. The map of Cuba disappeared, replaced by half a dozen mug shots.</p>
<p><em>&ldquo;</em><em>These</em> are his couriers,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;We can trace them because Fatso made the mistake of feeding them all the same diet.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What, pizza?&rdquo; I said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Not likely, Agent Stupid Times Two. Fatso forbids his couriers from consuming the product they sell, on penalty of death. They get macrobiotic meals to manage their withdrawal symptoms.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Like the Prophet used to eat before he discovered the air-eating way,&rdquo; I said, remembering that terrible confession in <em>Food-Free At Last.</em></p>
<p>&ldquo;That explains what we saw in the morgue, anyway,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The horror of macrobiotics,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;Addictive brown rice, appetite-provoking steamed vegetables, beans&mdash;the heroin of foodstuffs&mdash;and nuts.&rdquo; I shook my head. &ldquo;The poor misguided souls.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What about Fatso himself?&rdquo; Green asked. &ldquo;Does he follow the same diet?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You swung his lug wrench in the air, brought it crashing down on a stubborn bit of pipe. &ldquo;If only we knew. No poo sample from Fatso has ever been taken. He conceals his activities and food consumption so carefully it is impossible to know for certain what he eats&mdash;if he does, indeed, eat food.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;So where is he now?&rdquo; Erpent asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Fatso. Who do you think?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You shrugged. &ldquo;No idea.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But you said you found him!&rdquo; Erpent shouted.</p>
<p>The NSA man pointed at Erpent and clutched his sides in laughter. &ldquo;I was just pulling your poo,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;We don&rsquo;t even know what Fatso looks like.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Now was my time to shine. I stepped forward. &ldquo;I&rsquo;ve met the man.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Everyone turned to look at me. &ldquo;We both have,&rdquo; Green added. &ldquo;We arrested him too, but he got off on a technicality. I&rsquo;m surprised you don&rsquo;t have his image and DNA on file. Don&rsquo;t you get daily uploads of our arrest records?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You glanced at General O&rsquo;Shitt. &ldquo;Must be a glitch in the system.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Doesn&rsquo;t matter,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;I&rsquo;ve got a photo of him right here.&rdquo; I took out my dog-eared copy of the Prophet&rsquo;s manifesto and turned to the final chapter&mdash;&ldquo;Freedom From Food Means Slavery To Air: Is Going Air-Free Possible?&rdquo;&mdash;where I had used the mug shot of Fatso to mark my place.</p>
<p>The others crowded around, rank forgotten, jostling to get a glimpse of the world&rsquo;s most-wanted food terrist.</p>
<p>&ldquo;And to think he lives with impunity right here in the District of Crap,&rdquo; one of the Air Force techs muttered.</p>
<p>&ldquo;All because of our laws and our freedoms, can&rsquo;t so much as touch him,&rdquo; said another.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Poo-ee, they hate us for our freedoms, dog.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That right, dog,&rdquo; said the second tech. &ldquo;They be hating us for the right to be thin.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The two techs chest bumped. Their bellies jiggled. &ldquo;We the Air Force, dog!&rdquo; they shouted, and grabbed each other by the ears and stomped the floor. &ldquo;Go the Power of Air!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You stood at my elbow. &ldquo;May I?&rdquo; he asked reverently.</p>
<p>Everyone seemed to hold their breath. I handed him the photo. It was like announcing the brunch buffet was open, back in the bad old days. The crowd cleared, the techs blasted back into their seats.</p>
<p>Too Secret For You put the photo into a slot in the copper tank. Then&mdash;nothing. Silence. All around us in that bunker, thousands of keyboards clacked as analysts studied defecating bottoms. Pipes overhead gurgled with their worldwide sewer residues. Glassware on lab tables clinked together.</p>
<p>Too Secret For You bent over his toolbox, riding his lug wrench back and forth. Finally he leaped to his feet and shouted, &ldquo;We got the mothereater, boys!&rdquo;</p>
<p>O&rsquo;Shitt put his hands behind his back. &ldquo;On screen.&rdquo;</p>
<p>But Too Secret For You strutted about, pumping his fists like a wide air receiver after making the game-winning touchdown in the Super-Thin Bowl. He sang:</p>
<p>I&rsquo;m too secret for this job</p>
<p>too secret for this&mdash;</p>
<p>&ldquo;NSA GUY WHOSE NAME I DON&rsquo;T KNOW!&rdquo; the General thundered. &ldquo;TEN-HUT!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You stopped and looked around him. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m sorry,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Were you speaking to me?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Share some of the joy with the rest of us,&rdquo; Erpent said.</p>
<p>Too Secret For You bent over his toolbox again. He unzipped his fly and inserted his wee-wee into a biometric reader. &ldquo;I cross-reffed the photo against our entire giga-figa-hugga-bigga-lugga-chugga-migga-zigga-byte database,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Let me show you what I found.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He continued to slide himself in and out of the biometric reader while he talked. &ldquo;This data stream is classified Prophet Prophet Bo Boffet Secret,&rdquo; he explained. &ldquo;It requires constant authentication. A sort of dead man&rsquo;s switch.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Let&rsquo;s hope he&rsquo;s not a premature ejaculator,&rdquo; Green said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I shouldn&rsquo;t think so,&rdquo; Too Secret For You said, sighing with apparent pleasure. &ldquo;This is my fourth authentication today.&rdquo;</p>
<p>A satellite photo of Cuba&mdash;I mean, Poo Island&mdash;appeared on the big screen. It zoomed in on Havana. The roof of a resort hotel appeared, fringed with palms, blue pools, a white beach to the north, the ocean. Hundreds of empty tables filled the spaces between the pools.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Our orbiting Sewer Eye In The Sky took this photo of an unknown fat man in Cuba yesterday,&rdquo; Too Secret For You said, humping the biometric reader. &ldquo;Guess who?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The image zoomed again. Fuzzy at first, it showed a group of men sitting around a table pool-side. The table was covered in a yellow tablecloth with a pattern of red circles and green squiggles.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Funny-looking tablecloth,&rdquo; the General grunted.</p>
<p>Where had I seen that pattern before? The image resolution improved, and it hit me.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s a pizza!&rdquo; I said, and pointed.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What is, partner mine?&rdquo;</p>
<p>What we&rsquo;d all thought was a tablecloth was actually a six-foot-wide pizza pie. Green saw it at the same instant.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Gotcha,&rdquo; he said, and pounded his palm with his fist.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What have we got?&rdquo; the General asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Leaving the US of Air for the purpose of consuming addictive caloric substances is forbidden by the Amendment,&rdquo; I explained, wiping away tears of joy. &ldquo;That tablecloth is actually a giant pizza!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You adjusted the resolution one more time with his lug wrench, and the faces of the men became clear. One man gazed up at the sky, saluting the heavens with a champagne flute. He seemed to be looking straight at us.</p>
<p>At me.</p>
<p>It was Fatso, all right. And his clothing was spattered with food stains. The sort of evidence that Food Court judges love.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It <em>is</em> him!&rdquo; exclaimed the first airman. &ldquo;From the photo!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;You know I got a sister addicted to Ding Dongs?&rdquo; said the other airman. &ldquo;All because of that monster there.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Have no fear,&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt said. He patted the airman on the shoulder. &ldquo;Our revenge shall be swift and terrible. Fatso will regret the day he set himself up against this great nation, the Holy Land of Air. Major Turdd!&rdquo;</p>
<p>His aide jumped to attention. &ldquo;Sir sir sir sir sir!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General pressed his lips together tight and grim. &ldquo;Set our status to FOODCON ONE.&rdquo;</p>
<p class="chapter">Eleven</p>
<p>&ldquo;With or without sprinkles?&rdquo; Turdd inquired.</p>
<p>The General considered for a moment. &ldquo;With.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The major spoke into a nearby telephone. &ldquo;Set status to FOODCON ONE. Auth Code Smoothie UpYours Cheesecake KitKat Milkshake YooHoo DingDong IceCream Cheesecake KitKat. Repeat, set status to FOODCON ONE.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;With sprinkles,&rdquo; the General reminded him.</p>
<p>Turdd repeated the command into the mouthpiece and hung up. A siren blared. Every man, woman, child and donkey rushed to the nearest corner of the bunker.</p>
<p>I raised my voice to make myself heard. &ldquo;What&rsquo;s going on?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Battle stations,&rdquo; the General explained. An airman rushed up and handed him an orange plastic bucket with a strap. &ldquo;FOODCON ONE is the highest level of alert. It means there is an imminent threat of a food terrist attack.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But Fatso&rsquo;s in Cuba,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;Or was yesterday. What makes you think he&rsquo;s going to attack the US?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I don&rsquo;t think,&rdquo; the General growled. &ldquo;I know.&rdquo; He strapped the orange bucket around his waist, so that it covered his behind.</p>
<p>The other Air Force staff returned to work, orange buckets attached in similar fashion. Even the donkeys wore extra large plastic garbage bins fixed over their haunches.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are the buckets for?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>Too Secret For You cackled. &ldquo;They&rsquo;re not buckets, Too Stupid For Me. They&rsquo;re butt helmets. In the case of a sewer attack.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sewer attack?&rdquo; Green asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;If French plumbers hack their way into our systems, they could read our thoughts by prying open our butt cheeks and reading our ass lips. They could learn our deepest, darkest secrets. Like the password to my hotmail account.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Major Turdd, where are my sprinkles?&rdquo; the General bellowed.</p>
<p>&ldquo;They&rsquo;re coming!&rdquo;</p>
<p>At that moment it started to snow. I caught a flake and put it on my tongue, but spat it out again.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Styrofoam pellets,&rdquo; Too Secret For You explained. &ldquo;In the case of a sewer attack, sprinkles make it easier to track an enemy toilet cam. Or even an enemy frogman.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But what about Fatso?&rdquo; Erpent asked, strapping on a butt helmet. &ldquo;Can&rsquo;t we just snatch and grab him? We got SEAL teams down there, right?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General tugged at the foot-long brim of his cap. Showers of fake snow fell at his feet. &ldquo;If only it were that easy,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Ever since the Johnson Brothers op, it&rsquo;s been impossible to get a SEAL team on the ground in Cuba.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What&rsquo;s the problem?&rdquo; Erpent asked. &ldquo;Get in, grab him, get out. How hard is that?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General sighed. &ldquo;The feared Cuban Fat Police are everywhere, Agent Erpent. <em>Los Gordos,</em> the downtrodden Cuban people call them. Our skinny commandos stick out like celery at a cannibal barbecue.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Navy SEALs, Navy SEALs,&rdquo; barked a technician, in the tenor of that marine mammal, and balanced an invisible ball on his nose.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Bad SEAL!&rdquo; scolded his friend. &ldquo;No fee-shee for you! Have a snack on air, big boy!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent rolled his eyes. &ldquo;So issue them fat suits. I got to think of everything for you?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Disguises aren&rsquo;t enough,&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt said. <em>&ldquo;Los Gordos</em> make sure everyone gorges himself five times a day. How can we ask our fine young men, who have sworn to uphold the Amendment, and believe in the divine principles of eating air, to defile their bodies and minds in this way?&rdquo;</p>
<p>At that moment Crusteau&rsquo;s dossier vanished from the screen. Too Secret For You groaned and pressed his wee-wee deep into the biometric reader. We all turned to look.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sorry,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Next time I&rsquo;ll have to use a condom.&rdquo;</p>
<p>I had an idea. &ldquo;What about Cuban dissidents?&rdquo; I suggested. &ldquo;There must be air-eating sympathizers down there. People who are horrified at being force-fed by their totalitarian government.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;It&rsquo;s a sorry plight the Cuban people are in,&rdquo; the General said. &ldquo;For reasons we can&rsquo;t begin to fathom, they like being fat. For fifty years they were on the road to eating air. And now?&rdquo; He shook his head sadly.</p>
<p>&ldquo;There must be something we can do!&rdquo; I said.</p>
<p>Glum faces turned away from me. No one would meet my eye. Was this it? To come so far&mdash;so close to capturing Fatso&mdash;only to be stymied once more by our implacable foe, Cuba?</p>
<p>My Twinkie jumped up and down in my ankle holster, celebrating this victory for all Twinkie-kind. It sang:</p>
<p><em>Twinkies forever, you and me</em></p>
<p><em>Twinkies forever, glad to see&mdash;</em></p>
<p>&ldquo;Nooooooooo!&rdquo; I shouted at the ceiling, a primal scream of rage and despair.</p>
<p>But the Twinkie song swelled louder and louder until I could hear nothing else. My arms and legs became puppets, enslaved to that cursed pastry&rsquo;s enchantment. I scooped up a ball of fake snow and threw it at Too Secret For You.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What the poo was that?&rdquo; the NSA man demanded. He threw a snowball back at me. It hit Major Turdd.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Watch it, Plumber,&rdquo; the major barked.</p>
<p>The General stepped between us, arms raised. &ldquo;Gentlemen, please!&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;There&rsquo;s no time for this.&rdquo; He turned to Too Secret For You. &ldquo;Do we have any idea when Fatso might be coming back?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Let me check, Fat Man.&rdquo; Too Secret For You threw a snowball at the General. It exploded across the ribbons on his chest.</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s it,&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt said. &ldquo;No more Mister Twenty-Five-Star Nice Guy.&rdquo; He picked up a handful of styrofoam snow and threw it at Too Secret For You. It hit him in the face.</p>
<p>The return volley pegged an airman working at a nearby machine. Soon the fake snowball fight spread until the entire bunker was involved, tens of thousands of Air Force elite, orange buckets strapped to their behinds, fake snow flying everywhere.</p>
<p>Meanwhile, Too Secret For You tapped away at his toolbox. When the sprinkle fight died down, he said, &ldquo;We&rsquo;re in luck. Fatso&rsquo;s due back in D.C. tomorrow. Six-thirty in the morning. Just enough time to make your deadline.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The Twinkie song abruptly died. My mind was my own again.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Why didn&rsquo;t you say so before?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It was more entertaining watching you throw snowballs at each other.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;But how do you know he&rsquo;s coming back tomorrow?&rdquo; Erpent asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Filed a flight plan with Boring Tower when he left last Wednesday.&rdquo; That&rsquo;s the air traffic control tower out at D.C.&rsquo;s Boring Airport.</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s impossible,&rdquo; Green said. &ldquo;The Prophet grounded all civilian air traffic two years ago. The Air Force has standing orders to shoot down any plane trying to leave the country.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I can tell you what it means,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;Corruption at the highest levels.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No!&rdquo; I breathed.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Now don&rsquo;t jump to conclusions,&rdquo; the General said. &ldquo;Who approved the flight plan?&rdquo;</p>
<p>A bony face appeared on screen. He looked like the kind of man who had a fourteen-inch waist. &ldquo;Air Traffic Controller Blobbalicious Superfattypants.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Yikes, what kind of name is that?&rdquo; I asked.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Legal immigrant from Ruritania,&rdquo; Too Secret For You said. He printed out a copy of the photo and gave it to me. &ldquo;He&rsquo;s been the sole remaining air traffic controller out at Boring for the last year and a half. The skeleton crew, if you will.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Any history of food terrism?&rdquo; the General inquired. &ldquo;Family in Fat Camp? Ghetto ties?&rdquo;</p>
<p>Too Secret For You shook his head. &ldquo;Not that we know of. FBI ran a background check on him. He came out thin.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;No air traffic controller can stop fighters from being scrambled,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;That means someone in the Air Force has to be involved.&rdquo; He stared around at the swarms of technicians in their butt helmets, then at the General himself. &ldquo;Maybe somebody in this very room.&rdquo;</p>
<p>O&rsquo;Shitt stiffened his spine. &ldquo;You malign the honor and integrity of this uniform,&rdquo; he said, running his fingertips over his ribbon-covered tunic. &ldquo;None of my men would ever betray the Prophet like that.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I&rsquo;m afraid the super skinny&rsquo;s right,&rdquo; Too Secret For You said, tightening and loosening bolts with his lug wrench. &ldquo;Someone in NORAD authorizes Fatso&rsquo;s flights, and prevents fighters from shooting him down.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General reeled backward on his heels. Major Turdd caught him in time. &ldquo;A traitor in our midst!&rdquo; he gasped. &ldquo;Who could it be?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;According to the signature on the flight plan, it was the NORAD-FAA liaison officer, Lt. Cptn. Maj. Col. Bouwelles.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Not Bouwelles!&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt said. &ldquo;He&rsquo;s been with us since the beginning!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;A viper at your breast,&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;Sucking the vital air from your lungs. I suggest you call the guards, or I shall be forced to arrest him myself.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General straightened his cap. &ldquo;To think that I&rsquo;ve been harboring a food terrist so close to my heart,&rdquo; he sobbed. &ldquo;All this time!&rdquo; He shook his fist at the heavens. &ldquo;I&rsquo;m not waiting for any guards. Let&rsquo;s go get the bastard.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That could be dangerous, sir sir sir sir sir,&rdquo; Major Turdd said. &ldquo;When cornered, food terrists have been known to turn desperate.&rdquo;</p>
<p>But O&rsquo;Shitt brushed his aide aside. The rest of us followed in his wake. He waddled the length of the bunker, past the I-SEE-FAT Call Center, past the Poo Propulsion Laboratory, to NORAD itself. Fifty resolute men sat in front of a big screen, ready to respond to a nuclear first strike by Paraguay, Uganda, Luxembourg or even nuke-loving New Zealand. His waddle came to a halt at Lt. Capt. Maj. Col. Bouwelles&rsquo;s desk, where the man sat laughing into his headphones, his jaws moving up and down like he was chewing on air.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Sure I can get you a salami, honey,&rdquo; he was saying. &ldquo;But what do you want me to do with it?&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General pulled out a laxative revolver, and the man&rsquo;s laughter died. The gun was pewter-plated with an imitation ivory handle, and I recognized it instantly. It was a commemorative piece the Franklin Mint issued in honor of the Amendment&rsquo;s passage. They only made fifty thousand, each one lovingly handcrafted by slaves in China, individually numbered and accompanied by an engraved certificate of authenticity.</p>
<p>O&rsquo;Shitt pressed the tip of the gun to Bouwelles&rsquo;s nose. We crowded around, arms crossed, looking down at him in judgment.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No need to point that at me, sir sir sir sir sir,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;You&rsquo;ve got my attention.&rdquo; He cracked a grin. &ldquo;Is it time? Just tell me who to nuke. I am so there.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Tears sprang to the General&rsquo;s eyes. &ldquo;I know,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I <em>know.&rdquo;</em></p>
<p>I spotted a lump in Bouwelles&rsquo;s cheek. My eyes narrowed. &ldquo;Open your mouth,&rdquo; I said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;It isn&rsquo;t what you think,&rdquo; he mumbled. &ldquo;I can explain.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General cocked the hammer of his commemorative laxative weapon. &ldquo;Spit. It. Out.&rdquo;</p>
<p>A mouthful of half-chewed food tumbled from the man&rsquo;s lips onto his keyboard. The assembled throng gasped in horror.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What do you call that?&rdquo; Turdd demanded.</p>
<p>&ldquo;I was only chewing!&rdquo; Bouwelles wailed. &ldquo;I never swallow. It isn&rsquo;t illegal if you don&rsquo;t swallow!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Find out soon enough,&rdquo; the General said. And shot Bouwelles in the shoulder.</p>
<p>The man collapsed in his chair. A dark stain spread across the traitor&rsquo;s trousers. The smell of poo wafted up from below. Two guards appeared.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Take this piece of human filth to the brig,&rdquo; the General ordered. &ldquo;He speaks to no one. Understood?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Yes, sir sir sir sir sir!&rdquo; The guards saluted, and dragged the disgraced officer to his feet. A bag of chocolate candies spilled from the man&rsquo;s jacket and skittered across the floor. Several of the airmen picked them up.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Save the janitor some work,&rdquo; one explained, filling his pockets. &ldquo;Everyone&rsquo;s got to do his bit in the War on Fat, don&rsquo;t you think?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s the spirit,&rdquo; Major Turdd said. &ldquo;I&rsquo;ll see you get a commendation for this. Maybe even a promotion.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The airman beamed. &ldquo;Thanks, Major!&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;General,&rdquo; my partner said. &ldquo;With your permission, we would like to question your man.&rdquo; He indicated the limp figure of Lt. Capt. Maj. Col. Bouwelles.</p>
<p>&ldquo;No time,&rdquo; the General said. &ldquo;Summary execution in twenty minutes. Right now we need to track down his accomplice out at Boring, before he has time to warn Fatso. And you.&rdquo; He addressed Bouwelles. &ldquo;You, you, you food terrist!&rdquo; He spat in his colleague&rsquo;s face. &ldquo;You disgust me.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Bouwelles hung limp between the two guards. Poo dripped down his trouser leg onto his shoe. &ldquo;Sometimes you gotta catch a bullet for the team,&rdquo; he murmured, his tone slack under the sedative. &ldquo;Had to happen one day. Take care of my family, will you?&rdquo; He was weeping openly now. The guards led him away.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Our Smart Car is waiting out front,&rdquo; I said. &ldquo;It&rsquo;ll be a squeeze, but there&rsquo;s room for five. If there&rsquo;s not too much traffic, we can be at the airport in an hour.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;An hour!&rdquo; the General said. &ldquo;We can do better than that. Follow me.&rdquo;</p>
<p>He led us to the far end of the bunker. What looked like an oil pipeline soared from ground level and disappeared through the far wall. He lifted a hatch in the pipeline to reveal a capsule.</p>
<p>Inside was like a limousine. It even had that new limousine smell. Clad in black leather, with a mini-bar of compressed air&mdash;all the flavors, too!&mdash;plus a built-in television and an arsenal of laxative assault rifles. The only difference from an ordinary limo was that the seats had fighter jet harnesses instead of seatbelts. And the seats, I noticed, were actually toilet bowls. Green depressed a lever on one, and it emptied of water.</p>
<p>&ldquo;What is this contraption?&rdquo; Erpent demanded.</p>
<p>&ldquo;The latest invention of the Poo Propulsion Laboratory,&rdquo; the General said proudly. &ldquo;Gentlemen, I give you the Poo Rocket.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Alright, come out of there,&rdquo; a voice said. A rent-a-cop in a plastic badge stood at the hatchway. His shoulder patch declared him an Official Drone for the Toilet Safety Administration. Motto: &ldquo;Protecting Our Precious Air.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;I was just showing it to them,&rdquo; the General whined.</p>
<p>&ldquo;You know the rules. Not before you go through security.&rdquo; The TSA Official Drone gestured at a nearby metal detector and colonoscopy machine.</p>
<p>&ldquo;But I&rsquo;m the TSA Commander,&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt protested.</p>
<p>&ldquo;So you say,&rdquo; the Drone sneered. &ldquo;How do I know you&rsquo;re really you?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;What are you talking about?&rdquo; I asked. &ldquo;Of course he&rsquo;s really him.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The man snorted. &ldquo;Anyone can gain five hundred pounds, put a bunch of colored ribbon all over their clothes and strap a couple of big balloons with stars on them to their shoulders.&rdquo;</p>
<p>The General turned purple. &ldquo;This is a direct order, Official Drone. I am your commanding officer!&rdquo;</p>
<p>The man scratched his ass and sniffed his fingers. &ldquo;Get in line, fatty,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;Or I&rsquo;ll report you to my supervisor. You&rsquo;ll get the open-heart chest-cavity search.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Not the open-heart chest-cavity search!&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt said. &ldquo;No need to call your supervisor. Please. We&rsquo;re getting in line now. See? Here we are in line.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s better,&rdquo; the Drone said.</p>
<p>We backed up behind the security checkpoint. The General grumbled to himself for a moment, then sighed.</p>
<p>&ldquo;Now,&rdquo; he said, &ldquo;I don&rsquo;t need all three of you with me. Agent Erpent, why don&rsquo;t you update the Thin House on our progress?&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Are you kidding?&rdquo; Erpent said. &ldquo;Of course I&rsquo;m coming.&rdquo;</p>
<p>Major Turdd said in a high-pitched voice, &ldquo;Ma-ma! Ma-ma!&rdquo;</p>
<p>Erpent swallowed hard. &ldquo;On second thought, maybe the Prophet should be informed of the full capabilities of the NSA.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;A wise decision,&rdquo; the General said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;But I expect a full report on my desk this afternoon,&rdquo; Erpent said.</p>
<p>&ldquo;And you shall have it. What about you, Agent Green?&rdquo; O&rsquo;Shitt asked. &ldquo;You could wait for us in the lobby of the Pentagram.&rdquo; The military&rsquo;s star-shaped headquarters across the Potomacncheese.</p>
<p>Green stuck out his jaw. &ldquo;You can&rsquo;t threaten me,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;I&rsquo;ve got a right to come along, and I intend to do so. What&rsquo;s more, when this case is over I&rsquo;m going to make sure the whole world knows what you do here.&rdquo;</p>
<p>&ldquo;Think of your daughter,&rdquo; the General said quietly.</p>
<p>&ldquo;That&rsquo;s exactly what I&rsquo;m doing, General,&rdquo; he said. &ldquo;What kind of future do I want for my child? Do I want the NSA filming her bottom every time she goes to the toilet?&rdquo;</p>
<p>A twenty-five-star shrug. &ldquo;This is the price we pay to live in a free society,&rdquo; the General replied. &ldquo;Where everyone&mdash;regardless of age, race, gender, sexual orientation, family status, hair color, number of toes on their left foot, favorite glue to sniff, movie they saw last weekend, number of cousins in Georgia, fluency in Swahili or preferred brand of pipe tobacco&mdash;is free to eat air.&rdquo;</p>