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10. DANCE OF THE MANATEE Vicki Hendricks

Booger heard the crack and rumble above him as he followed the party boat upstream. He felt chills rush down his hide and each bristle on his back push against the flow. He felt his nakedness. His two-thousand-pound bulk was as vulnerable as a bowl of fish aspic.

He craved Marion, the human he called Ma. He sought the warmth of her frail flesh. But he sensed that the soft crepey arms would never again rock his fears away, nor the skeletal fingers massage the sensitive areas beneath his limbs.

She had often come to him in the moonlight when the harsh air-world was smothering her, a hot trickle of energy seeping from her pores into the salt water. He would nuzzle his rubbery nose under her armpits or into her rump till she shrieked with pleasure. They had communication beyond words. They were good for each other. Now she was gone.

His smallish brain replayed the scenario of the last afternoon he'd seen her alive. He'd been munching at the bottom, chewing well on a particularly bitter clump of turtle grass, when he'd recognized Ma's bony legs. They'd been fluttering and whipping in a foaming chaos of kicks that was sure to lure sharks. Behind her was the silent black hull of a Cigarette boat following at no-wake speed. Booger had surfaced to see Ma thrashing with her last strength through the waves, coughing, gulping air, digging in, trying to reach her Booger.

She'd led them into Booger territory, for him to save her. He felt his adrenaline-like fluids start to pump. He dove and came up in front of her. He humped her onto his rounded shoulders and made a run for the shallows, but he couldn't submerge to get up speed. Ma was gasping, and her shaking arms could barely cling around his neck.

They never had a chance. The monster boat could go most anyplace he could. It was on his tail, unstoppable as a freighter.

"Okay, Miss Marion," a male human bellowed. "No more exercise. Tell us where it is or we shoot the porker you're ridin' on."

She let go of Booger's neck instantly. He tried to nuzzle between her legs to get her back on top of him, but she was doing a scissors kick at top speed. She launched herself toward the boat. "No!" she was screaming. "No! Not him. He's innocent."

Booger ran under her and flipped and banged his tail against the boat. Once, twice. He thumped it again, again, again. It was no use. He was off balance. He got water up his nose and his lower back seized up in pain. There wasn't even a dent in the hull.

He surfaced and watched them drag Ma out of the water. There were two human males. A dark-haired, muscular one was holding Ma down. One that resembled a pale manatee was telling him what to do.

Ma lay on her stomach, flattened and exhausted, across the stern. "Head?" she panted. "That's all you want?" She snorted, coughed. "Gone. Sucker's gone."

"So where is it, Marion? Don't play senile on us," said the pale fat one.

"Ha! Sold." She wheezed. "You'll never get the money. It's hidden. It's going to a good cause."

The pointy black feet of the dark one straddled her torso, and an arm with a drawing on it grabbed a handful of her wet hair to raise her head. "We don't give a hoot about the f ing money, ol' lady. We want the head. You're using up your time."

She turned her face up to him. "No kidding," she said. She crossed her eyes and stuck her tongue out the corner of her mouth. She giggled and snorted.

The rounded human hissed something.

Booger sensed trouble. He had to get their attention. He rolled on his side, stuck his tail at an angle, and powered. He zigged. He zagged. He did the best shark imitation he knew how.

Gold chains glinted as Pointy-foot leaned out over the water. Strong perfume drifted down and made Booger gag. "You saved that one for nothing, woman. He needs to be put out of his misery."

The pudge motioned to Pointy-foot and he let go of her hair. She looked weak and paler than ever. Booger sensed he must do something fast.

He dove to the bottom and looked, kept searching, using up the seconds. At last he found what he needed. A rock. A nice sharp piece of dead coral.

He gummed it and rose to the surface. He could hear talk, but couldn't see Ma anymore. He took the coral to the black, shiny-painted surface and dug in. He zigged. He zagged. He cut deep into the fiberglass, propelling himself the length of the boat. He gashed at the hull. He couldn't make a hole like he wanted, couldn't sink them and save Ma no matter how hard he tried but he cut some ridges. He would know this boat if he saw it again.

He heard Ma's voice from above. He surfaced. She was still flattened on the deck. He sensed her ebbing strength from her husky breath.

"Swim, son. Fast. Go. They have guns."

The crashing started as she spoke, and the four out-boards rumbled and churned up water. Booger couldn't make it under the boat. The water was ripped again and again alongside him. He felt a zing and tasted blood, hot and frothy, in his mouth. He had to swim. He blasted away at top speed until the engines roared. He turned to catch sight of the boat skimming the water in the opposite direction.

It was sometime later he found Ma's body. He let her drift for a time, in the warm bay that she loved, but his own homing instinct made him sense he should take her near shore. She'd want her Fay-calf to know what happened.

He nudged Ma to a quiet place, where the water was less murky and the sand soft enough for them to drag her out. She was peaceful. Her lips were set in the certain way he'd noticed when she cuddled skin to hide with him in the shallows on a summer evening. She'd had the last snort on those guys.

Booger had slept and foraged, and his wounded lip stopped bleeding. He was used to pain and it was too late to worry about scarring. He watched Ma puff up till her wrinkles were gone and she resembled his true birth mother. Then the tan human brought the others to take her away.

Now as Booger listened to the sirens racing too late to the explosion on the bridge, he struggled with his grief a feeling of outrage at the whole land-world. He relived the foul smell of perfumed male, the gold chains catching sun, the shiny black pointed feet straddling Ma's sinewy frame.

His blood began to heat. A chemical reaction took place in his disproportionate brain. The bristles on his back rose straighter, his shoulders squared, and his tail flared out and took up a steady, pulsing throb. He licked the crusty scab inside his mouth. Was it justice he wanted, or vengeance?

Whatever it was, he needed to find that marked boat.

Jake was jamming hot and heavy on his porch swing when Fay and Britt pulled into the drive. He thumped the canister on his lap in half-time with the creak of his joints. The squeak of unoiled hinges blended to produce what he thought to be an interesting rhythm.

Fay came up the steps first. "Do you think you should be flashing that head around the neighborhood, Jake?"

"Is that 'When the Saints Go Marching In'?" Britt asked. Fay snorted.

Jake stared at Britt and straightened his legs to halt the music.

"We need to take this thing to a safe place," Fay said. "Jake could be in danger."

Britt looked inside the screen door. "Never mind. His place is perfect. Anybody who comes here will figure it was already ransacked."

"That's what I like about you, Britt," Jake said.

Fay picked up the canister. "I know where you can put it my friend Ramona's. She has snakes and iguanas. It's very secure, and she's a nurse, not a bit squeamish."

Britt put up her little finger and got Jake's attention. "What you like about me, Jake, is that I'm attractive, intelligent, kind, humorous, employed, and have female organs," she said. "I can cook too. I just don't." She punched him in the upper arm.

He grabbed his shoulder and moaned. "Damn, Britt." He moaned again. "This joint's been dislocated eight times."

"Ramona lives on the water," said Fay. "We can take the boat. It's the fastest, and maybe we'll see Booger. I feel in the mood for a swim."

"Yeah. Good idea," said Jake. A flash of Fay clad only in moonlight flickered through his brain. He'd like to take a gander at her in sunshine. She was getting even hotter with age. He massaged his joint. It was aching. "I think this is beginning to swell," he said.

"Surely you have ice," said Britt.

The women waited on the porch while Jake went inside. He took a leak, swallowed some aspirin, then grabbed a Grolsch out of the refrigerator. He rolled it over the inflamed area. Sometimes he wondered whatever had made him play football. Then he remembered it was the money and the women.

Britt asked to use the bathroom and he directed her around cardboard boxes of briefs, then stepped back onto the porch with Fay. "You're looking lovely today," he said, and his hand reached to touch the soft tan skin of her throat.

Fay stiffened. "I've been practicing my Tae Kwon Do, Jake. When I see aggressive movement, like hands on my neck, I get nervous." She took her stance. "Ke-hap!" Her foot whipped out and stopped a half-inch from his left jaw. "I can break rocks with this."

Jake flinched. "Impressive. I was wondering if we could get together for a drink this evening. Maybe try one of those new clubs on the beach."

"I don't think so, Jake although I'd like to see those sharks I heard about. I have too much on the brain with my Granny and all. And I'm worried sick about Phil."

There was a crash and whoosh inside the house. Britt came walking out at a fast clip. "Sorry, Jake. I touched something and started an avalanche. I hope nothing got mixed up."

Jake struggled into the back of Britt's T-Bird with the canister and popped open his beer for the short drive to Fay's boat. The traffic was heavy. They could have walked in less time. He drank the beer, and next thing he knew, Britt was slapping his cheek to wake him up.

He clomped down the dock following Fay and Britt.

"Wonder where that horny manatee is. Doesn't he usually hang out by your boat, Fay?"

"Horny?" Fay said. "Booger? Are you projecting, Jake?"

The women looked at each other. "He's so rude," Britt said. "Somebody ought to give him a well-placed kick."

Fay stepped into the boat. "Not me. It's too easy." She turned the key to start the engine, and switched on the VHP radio. Britt untied the bow line and hopped aboard.

"Jake, grab the stern and push us off, will you?" said Fay.

He handed the canister to Fay and she stowed it in the starboard locker. He unwrapped the line from the cleat and put a foot on the gunwale. The boat moved out fast, until his legs couldn't split any farther. He splashed face first into the oily bay water, got a noseful, and came up coughing. Time to cut back on the Grolsch, he thought. A plastic Winn-Dixie bag was plastered over his forehead and ear.

Fay pulled it off and put it in the bucket she had for such purposes. "Good thing you found this bag. It might have gotten wrapped around the prop." She grinned. "You need to step decisively when getting into a boat, Jake."

Jake smoothed his hair back and looked up into her green eyes. The bay paled and grayed in comparison.

"There's a ladder on the stern," she said.

"Listen to this," said Britt. She was pointing at the VHF. "There's a wounded manatee."

Fay got on the radio and requested further information. The captain came back with a description of a long jagged scar across the upper back.

"It's Booger!" said Fay. "We have to find him fast." Jake moved around toward the stern. He heard the location north of Mattheson Hammock.

"Thanks, Captain. I'll take care of it. Let's go!" yelled Fay. She hit the throttle as Jake took the first step up the ladder. His foot slipped off the stainless-steel rung, and his 225 pounds dragged by one arm, on the side with the bad shoulder. The prop was churning a few feet from his dangling legs. He tried to yell above the engine. "Fay, stop. FAY!" he screamed. Neither she nor Britt heard.

Jake let go and fell backward, tried to yell an obscenity, but a wave choked him off. He sculled in place with one hand while he watched the boat speed away in the distance.

Jake started the short swim back to the dock. He figured he'd wait there. Fay would turn the boat around as soon as she noticed he was gone. She would feel terrible. Maybe he could convince her to go out for a drink to make up for it.

Fay headed toward Mattheson Hammock at top speed. The outlandish thought that Booger's injury had something to do with Granny's death hovered in her mind. It was more a feeling than a thought, like the sixth sense Granny had always talked about. It was beyond logic. Fay had always believed the minds of animals were badly underestimated. Someday the true potentials would be revealed, and humans would feel ashamed of their ignorant practices of slavery and butchery.

Fay slowed the boat as she neared the location. "I'll watch starboard. Britt, take port." She cut the engine to an idle and they drifted.

"Look," Britt hollered. She pointed at a half-moon shadow just visible under the edge of a dock. "There he is, just behind that black Cigarette boat." Britt blew out some air. "That's Joey G.'s dock. I don't think we should get any closer."

Fay turned to ask Jake. "Where's Jake?" "Probably stopped off for another beer." Fay didn't take time to ask what she meant. Booger moved out from under the dock. He raised his head. His round black eyes stared into Fay's. He did a couple slow logrolls on the surface between them and the Cigarette.

"What's the matter with him?" asked Britt.

"Must be his equilibrium is off. There's a gash in his jowl. It looks like a bullet wound, for heaven's sake."

Booger started smashing his tail flat on the surface of the water and angling his body toward the Cigarette. He smashed and angled, smashed and angled.

"I don't know what he's doing," Fay said. She pulled the boat closer and idled. "Somebody really tore up the hull of that boat. I hope they didn't kill any coral."

Booger smashed the water hard. Spray flew into the boat and drenched Britt from the shoulders down. "Damn!" she yelled. "Booger is going nuts. What's his problem?"

"I don't know, but I have a bad feeling."

Britt heard a sound and turned. Fay looked at her face and did likewise. On the dock behind them was a pudgy, balding man and a muscular, dark-haired man with a scorpion tattoo on his arm. She recognized him. "Hector," she said.

"Joey G.," said Britt, waving a hand at the fat one. "I thought you were in Fiji."

Hector lifted his other arm from his side and pointed an Uzi their way.

"Damn," said Britt. "Double damn."

"Pull your boat up to the dock, ladies," said Joey G. "We need to talk."

Fay remembered the canister in the starboard locker: big trouble. She saw the throttle out of the corner of her eye, and thought about slamming it forward. These guys were probably bluffing ... but then she thought better. It was Miami.

She shifted into reverse to maneuver into the spot and saw Booger hide himself back under the dock. She couldn't risk Britt's life. She'd have to wing it, pick the right moment to make a move.

9. SOUTH BEACH SERENADE Brian Antoni | Naked Came The Manatee | 11. WHERE ARE YOU DYING TONIGHT? John Dufresne