home | login | register | DMCA | contacts | help | donate |      


my bookshelf | genres | recommend | rating of books | rating of authors | reviews | new | | collections | | | add

13. THE LAW OF THE JUNGLE Carl Hiaasen

Mickey Schwartz had never been to Bimini, as there was not among Bahamians a huge demand for Fidel Castro impersonators.

Nor had Mickey Schwartz ever been in a Cigarette boat crossing the Gulf Stream with an Uzi-toting goon, an obese fugitive politician, two crabby female hostages, and an older woman who elegantly claimed to have slept with the real Fidel.

In that respect, it was the most interesting gig of Mickey Schwartz's show business career. And, except for the threat of gunplay, it was also the most gratifying, professionally.

Being a Castro impersonator in Miami was no picnic a vast impassioned segment of the population regarded the Cuban leader more as a murderous butcher than as cheap comic relief. As Mickey Schwartz could attest, there was no fortune to be made milking Castro for laughs, at least not in South Florida.

Most of Mickey's Fidel gigs were weekend parades in Little Havana, and involved long hours of pretending to be dead lying in an open casket, swinging from a gallows, rotting under a cloud of fake flies in a cane field ... that sort of thing. As long as Mickey didn't move a muscle, everything was fine; people cheered like crazy.

Easy payday, his pals would say. But Mickey Schwartz hated it. The fatigues were stifling and the phony beard was scratchy. Besides, he was too talented for Sunday parade crap. He had a solid lounge act in Sunny Isles Brando, Nicholson, Robin Williams. He even did a Howard Stern, for the younger crowd. Who else did a Howard Stern? Nobody, that's who.

Mickey Schwartz believed he hated impersonating Castro nearly as much as the exiles hated Castro himself. Yet now, plowing across the Gulf Stream in a spiffy black Cigarette boat, hefigured all the hard humiliating work was paying off. Ten grand, and a free trip to Bimini!

Mickey wasn't sure exactly who was paying him, and didn't care. He was feeling pretty good about the day, until the speedboat hit the curling wake of an oil tanker and the humongous fugitive politician the one they called Big Joey G. choked to death on his conch salad.

Fay Leonard said, "Tell me you're not just throwing him overboard."

Hector squinted at her. "No, baby, I'm not throwing him overboard. I'm rolling him overboard."

The body of Big Joey disappeared over the transom. The splash was majestic. Fay glared at Hector; she hated polluters.

Hector said, "That oughta add about eight knots to our cruising speed."

"And three hundred pounds of filth to the water column," Fay muttered.

"No, baby, that man is definitely biodegrading."

Britt Montero, shackled on the deck next to Fay, couldn't help but snigger. Hector winked and flexed, making the scorpion tattoo do a shimmy. He slipped the strap of the Uzi over his shoulder and returned to the wheel. Fay's gaze shifted to the red Gott cooler at Hector's feet. Glumly she considered what was inside, packed on a pillow of ice.

Nothing left to bargain with now, she thought. The granddaughter of Marion McAlister Williams will soon be sleeping with the fishes, and Joey G.

Fay felt an elbow in her ribs. Britt leaned close and said, "Don't worry." Fay nodded gamely. Maybe they could talk their way out of it. Maybe there was hope.

Just as the despicable Hector had predicted, the newly lightened Cigarette boat picked up speed. In her mind, Fay replayed the long ride. By the time Joey G. started gagging, everyone aboard had grown sick of him. His preposterous cryogenics spiel had become a topic of open ridicule among the captives; even Hector admitted it was baloney, along with the Vietnam skull-boiling rap. Nobody who saw Big Joey cram an entire quart of diced conch into his voluminous cheeks could've imagined him as a soldier in any man's army, in any war.

Then came the jolt of the tanker wake, a shower of salt spray, and Joey was flopping on the deck like an albino walrus. Hector flung himself across the Gott cooler to prevent it from being kicked overboard. Before the others realized Big Joey wasn't reenacting some ludicrous jungle-sapper fantasy, it was over. All of Hector's strength was required to jettison the prebloated corpse.

At the splash, the elegant older Cuban woman made a sign of the cross. Her escort, the guy dressed up to look like Castro, blurted: "Doesn't anybody here know the Heimlich?"

"Oh yeah. The Heimlich." Hector peered over the transom. "Gee, I guess it's too late."

He cranked the outrageous four Mercs and set a course for the Bimini islands. "Bastard," hissed Fay Leonard, but her words were lost in the high roar of the big outboards.

Booger the manatee had watched from a depth of nine feet as the black speedboat idled from the slender channel into Biscayne Bay. He didn't know the boat was headed for the ocean, then the Bahamas. He didn't know who was on board, or why. He didn't know the dark purpose of the voyage.

In fact there was much Booger didn't know, wouldn't know, couldn't know, since his brain was approximately the size and complexity of a bocci ball. Booger's breadth of rumination was therefore limited to a daily quest for warm quiet waters, tasty seaweed, and (once in a great while) clumsy sea cow sex.

Whatever had gotten into this manatee in recent days coursed like a mysterious fever, temporarily investing him with the cunning of a dolphin, the fierce agility of a killer whale, and the dopey loyalty of a Labrador retriever. None of those qualities typically was found in Trichechus manatus an ancient, migratory, dull, but delightfully docile hulk of mammal.

The death of the old woman, for example, had stirred in Booger the utterly alien feelings of sorrow, rage, a thirst for revenge. No mere manatee was ever burdened by such complicated emotions! For most, bliss was never farther than the next juicy clump of turtle grass.

In a way, Booger's gunshot wound was a blessing. Eventually the nagging sting in his flank chased away the brain fever and unclouded his primordial thinking.

Lolling under the dock at Big Joey's house, Booger found himself losing the insane urge to chase boats, slap his tail on the surface like some hyperthyroid beaver, or attach strange names ("Ma" what the heck did that mean?) to pale wrinkled humans.

As daylight slipped away, Booger was cogitating less like a Disney character and more like an ordinary sea cow. He no longer fretted over what was happening in the bright dry world above him. Likewise, the fate of other species was no longer Booger's worry a kitten could either swim, or it couldn't. And presented with a choice between rescuing a drowning person and dodging the propellers of a lunatic Donzi, Booger wouldn't hesitate to dive for cover.

Sorry, pal. Every mammal for himself.

As darkness fell, Booger swam slowly into the bay. He kept to the shoreline and meandered north toward the familiar bustle of Dinner Key. When he got there, he was startled to find swimming among the sailboats another manatee, shy and sleek and miraculously unscarred. As she brushed against him, Booger felt a tingle in his fluke.

Soon the bullet wound was forgotten, as were the queer events of recent days and the fading clamor of Coconut Grove. Together the two sea cows struck out across the silky waters, breaching and diving in tandem. Booger knew of a little out-of-the-way place on Virginia Key, a quiet teardrop of a harbor where friendly human shrimpers occasionally tossed crispy heads of lettuce to visiting manatees.

It was a helluva first date.

The yacht of Juan Carlos Reyes was anchored in a gentle chop a mile east of North Bimini. Even for Hector it was easy to find: a gleaming 107-foot Feadship called Entrante Presidente.

Reyes greeted them in a navy blazer, cream-colored slacks, and dainty Italian loafers. The yacht's salon reeked of cigars and heavy cologne. Britt and Fay instantly became sick. Reyes ordered them taken to a private cabin and handcuffed to a bedpost. Hector eagerly volunteered, but Reyes told him to sit down. One of Reyes's bodyguards, a weightlifter type with a pearl nose stud, escorted the women away.

Juan Carlos appraised the Castro impersonator. "The real one was heavier in the belly," he said, circling, "but overall, my friend, you're not bad."

"Thank you," said Mickey Schwartz. He had a routine to go with the getup: a bombastic and humorously convoluted tirade against Yankee imperialists, capitalism, and blue jeans.

Juan Carlos Reyes wasn't interested in hearing it. "You must be Lilia," he said to the elegant older woman. He attempted to kiss her hand, but she pulled it away.

"Little fool," she scoffed. "Cuba will never take you back."

"We shall see, puta."

Lilia bent over (for she was a full six inches taller than Juan Carlos Reyes) and slapped him smartly on the face, dislodging the smoldering nub of his cigar. Hector sprang forward, raising the stubby Uzi, but Reyes waved him off.

"Fidel is ten times the man you'll ever be," said Lilia Sands.

Reyes smiled. "Your precious Fidel is dead, old woman. Croaked. Cacked. Deceased. Checked out. Whacked. Eighty-sixed. Muerto.Your amor isno more."

With frost in her voice, Lilia declared, "I do not believe you, enanillo!"

"Ah, but my sources are impeccable." Juan Carlos

Reyes plucked the cigar off the carpet and relit it. "The highest of connections in Washington and yes, Havana." He turned to Hector. "Do you have it?"

Hector nodded, fished in a pocket. He brought out a wispy lock of dark hair, tied in a red and gold Montecristo wrapper. He handed it to Reyes, who examined it as if it were a rare jewel.

"In a cigar box," Hector said, "in her bedroom."

Reyes chuckled. "Ironic, no?"

Lilia glared defiantly. Mickey Schwartz deduced it was not the appropriate moment to mention his fee. He stared down at his black military boots, crusty with salt from the boat ride.

Juan Carlos Reyes held up the tuft of hair as a trophy. "Proof!"

Lilia spun away. "You're a fool. Fidel is not dead." She felt a comforting hand on her shoulder the impersonator. A harmless fellow, she thought. And not a bad kisser.

Carefully, Reyes slipped the lock of hair into an inside pocket of his blazer. "Hector," he said. "Bring me the prize. Bring me the key to my destiny!"

"Cuba'sdestiny, you said."

"Whatever. Go get the damn thing."

Reyes himself cradled the Uzi while Hector retrieved the red cooler from the speedboat, which was tied to the yacht's stern. He brought the Gott into the salon and set it ceremoniously before Reyes' s delicate loafers.

Lilia Sands and Mickey Schwartz had no idea what they were about to see. Excitedly, Juan Carlos shoved the machine gun butt-first at Hector, and flipped open the cooler. He removed a stainless canister the size of a hatbox, and placed it shiny and perspiring from the ice on a beveled glass dining table.

"Where was it?" Reyes asked breathlessly.

"Hidden in the woman's boat," Hector replied. "The blonde's."

The stumpy millionaire chuckled. "Lost and then found. Fate, no? That's what brought him to me. Fate in the form of wild women." He stepped back from the canister. "Open it, Hector."


"Let the bastard out!"

"OK, OK." Hector grappled with the canister's vacuum lock until it surrendered with a burp. Cautiously, he opened the lid.

"Take it out," Reyes commanded.

Hector hesitated. By nature he was not a squeamish man, but ...

"Take it out!"

Hector grabbed a gray mossy handful and lifted the staring head from the canister. He held it like a lantern, his arm outstretched toward the two captives. Mickey Schwartz's mouth turned to chalk. Lilia lowered her eyes.

Juan Carjos Reyes was trembling with pleasure. "Senor Castro, how nice of you to join us! You're looking very jaunty this evening wouldn't you agree, Miss Sands?"

Without comment Lilia collapsed into Mickey Schwartz's arms. "Swell," he said with a grunt.

Reyes produced a gold-plated cuticle scissors and snipped a thatch from the severed head. "Hector," he said, "keep an eye on our guests. I'll be in the galley."

The DNA expert had been waiting three hours; a Harvard doctor, the best. "This is very exciting," Reyes said to himself, hurrying with the twin locks of hair out of the salon.

Hector kept the Uzi trained on his captives as he refit the Castro head in its container. Mickey Schwartz arranged the unconscious Lilia on a leather sofa. He pointed at the canister. "That's him, isn't it? The real deal."

"Shut up," said Hector, feeling creepy Fidel's ugly face, everywhere he looked. He returned the canister to the red Gott cooler.

The bodyguard with the pearl in his nose appeared in the salon with Fay and Britt. Firmly, he placed them on tall stools at the bar. The women still looked queasy.

Mickey Schwartz said, "You missed quite a show."

Promptly, Hector whacked him with the back of his hand. "I told you to shut up." *

Mickey shut up. He felt the yacht begin to rock under a freshening northern breeze. The slap of the waves, grew louder against the hull.

Britt cynically motioned toward the red cooler. "How's the head?"

"What head?" said Hector with a wink. "Nothing but Snapples in there. Kiwi-flavored."

Fay looked up. "Randy, what's going to happen to us?"

Randy was the bodyguard with the nose stud. He furrowed his tan brow and blinked intently at Fay's question.

"Randy doesn't know what's going to happen to us," Britt Montero said wearily. "Randy barely knows how to dress himself."

Randy ambiguously clicked his teeth. Hector sighed.

"Sweetheart, there's lotsof things Randy knows how to do, and he'll show you one in particular if you don't shut your fat trap."

Britt fell silent. Fay laid her head on the bar. Mickey Schwartz rubbed his jaw, and Lilia Sands stirred on the couch. Not a word was spoken for a long time, until Juan Carlos Reyes returned in an ebullient glow.

The human head for which Marion McAlister Williams had been paid close to a million dollars, and for which she had eventually been murdered, belonged not to Fidel Castro but to one of his Cuban doubles, a man named Rigoberto Lopez.

The purchaser of the head had been well aware it was not Castro's. The purchaser worked free-lance for the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. His first name was Raymond; his last name was unknown, even to his own team.

Raymond and his people had been given to understand that a serious problem threatened the administration's top-secret plan to replace the Cuban dictator. The scheme dreamed up at the NSC, presented in Havana by former president Carter, and ultimately endorsed by the ailing Castro himself had been to trick Castro's enemies into believing he was dead by using a fake head. In exchange for leaving Cuba, Fidel had been promised a safe and secret exile, the best cancer specialists in the world, and a cash departure bonus equivalent to that paid to Baby Doc Duvalier, when he fled Haiti.

Raymond had been informed that the Castro plan was in jeopardy, due to a surplus of bogus heads in Greater Miami. Raymond had also been told that the plan was so vital to national security that he was authorized to spend any sum of money to retrieve the extra heads before their existence became a public scandal.

Therefore Raymond had no qualms about giving a million in taxpayer funds to an eccentric old bird in Coconut Grove. The head in her refrigerator had been picked up in its steel canister and transported by a Coast Guard Citation jet to Washington, D.C., where it had been placed in a locked freezer in the basement of the State Department.

It was in no way Raymond's fault that the U.S. government had subsequently closed down because of a petty political squabble, or that a cost-conscious assistant undersecretary at the State Department had shut off electricity to the building's basement, or that the million-dollar head of Rigoberto Lopez was currently decomposing faster than your average wheel of cheap Brie.

Meanwhile Raymond was at the Alexander on Miami Beach, in a suite once occupied by Keith Richards. Raymond was a happy man. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and he was interviewing a hack actor named Brandon Dash and a skittish makeup artist named Ziff Bodine. And Raymond had become totally convinced that the other surplus Castro head was only a clever movie prop, and that it was now safely suppurating in the belly of a lemon shark at a club named Hell.

Which left one remaining head the important one, the correct one, the one with the notch in the ear. And that head, according to Raymond's contacts, was exactly where it was supposed to be.

Raymond made a brief, smug phone call to Washington. The man in Washington then made a call to Havana. The man in Havana then telephoned Miami Beach: the Odyssey Motel. Room 105.

Mike Weston grabbed it on the third ring. "What's the good news, compadre?"

A short pause, then: "Everything's fine. We found your lost luggage. Where is Hector?"

"On a seaplane flying home from Bimini."

"It went well?" asked the voice from Havana.

"Perfect. I expect him any minute," Weston said. "I'm already packing for Belize."

"Don't go anywhere until you hear from us. Don't leave the room you understand?"

"Hey, you're the boss," Weston said.

"You do understand? Stay right where you are."

"I heard you the first time." Weston hung up the phone, stretched out on the starchy motel sheets, dialed up another porny film on Spectravision, and waited for Hector.

That's where Franklin and Marlis found them later, their insides decorating the room.

Aboard the Entrante Presidente,the captives were served lobster fritters and a tangy mango sorbet. Hunger overcame their pride and anxiety.

Juan Carlos Reyes, who was in a celebratory mood, told them what would come next. "Of course you will not be killed, because there's no need. A small launch will take you from my yacht to the Big Game Club in Bimini. There you'll be met by Bahamian customs and immigration officers. For the next several days, you will have a most difficult time trying to return to Miami."

Britt Montero started to speak, but the millionaire cut her off. "Miss Montero, don't ever think about calling in a story to your newspaper. Your cellular has already been disabled and your accommodations in Bimini, unfortunately, will be too rustic for telephone jacks."

Britt said, "You'll never get away with it."

"Oh, I will. Easily, in fact. By the time you get out, I'll be on my way to Havana."

Angrily, Fay Leonard said, "You can't silence us."

"Nor would I want to," said Juan Carlos Reyes. "Miss Leonard, I'll have my own version of these events, which will be substantiated by an esteemed scientist from Harvard, and also by Mr. Schwartz, if he still wishes to be paid for his services."

Mickey hung his head.

"My recollection," Reyes went on, "is that Miss Leonard and Miss Montero, having heard of my million-dollar offer for proof of Castro's death, greedily attempted to defraud me. They constructed a flimsy hoax involving a Castro impersonator and a delusional old woman, Miss Sands, in the hopes I'd fall for it "

"That's ridiculous!" Fay shouted.

"Maybe, maybe not." Reyes took a sip of rum. "Miss Montero, do your readers know how little your newspaper pays you? A million dollars would buy lots of cat food, no?"

Britt chewed her lower lip, and thought of her callow young editors. Assuming her story would eventually get published, she wondered what she could possibly write about the severed heads that would make any sense.

Juan Carlos Reyes rose. "Randy will take you to the launch." He bowed slightly toward Lilia. "I'm sorry your heart is broken, Miss Sands, but I'm not at all sorry your infamous lover is dead. My only regret is that I didn't kill him myself."

"As if you could," Lilia said venomously. "Little cockroach that you are. Cowardly limp-noodled "

"Enough," Mickey Schwartz cut in.

" rotten little crook!"

Juan Carlos Reyes wagged a mocking finger at Lilia Sands. "Now is that any way," he asked, "to address the next president of a free Cuba?"

It was a good plan; a solid plan. A plan that would've worked, if only the real Fidel Castro had not been insulted, propositioned, and mugged in broad daylight on Miami Beach.

The messy murders of the two men in room 105 that hadn't bothered Castro, for he'd known of it in advance. He even knew what the police still did not know: the victims' names (Hector Pupo and Mike Weston), and why they'd had to die (they were loud, careless, and knew too much).

A security matter handled by experts who made it look amateurish Fidel understood such things.

However, the arrival of the perky cleanup crew had put him on edge. Castro was rattled by the knowledge that murders were so common in South Florida that swabbing up crime scenes was a full-time trade, and evidently a lucrative one.

Franklin and Marlis, the workers who came to room 105, were too talky and inquisitive. They stared dubiously at Fidel's Korean-made toupee, and posed snoopy questions disguised as banter. Fidel, as usual, pretended not to understand English. It was all he could do not to retch during Franklin's graphic monologue about the effects of gastric acids on suede upholstery.

Castro realized that if Franklin and Marlis somehow recognized him, they could with one well-placed phone call generate more business for themselves, and perhaps even the gratuity of a lifetime. Once Castro gave a subtle tug on his good earlobe, three stocky men in guayaberas materialized to escort the voluble cleaners off the premises. Meanwhile Fidel slipped into his room and changed into a bathing suit, an absurd vermilion slingshot which was (Cuban intelligence had assured him) the prevailing beachside attire of old, pallid, pudgy male tourists.

The outfit worked too well, the swimsuit a beacon. Strolling alone on the sand, Fidel was scarcely a hundred yards from the motel when a gum-popping prostitute offered to "rock your world, Gramps," for fifty U.S. dollars. Her efforts at detaching his red thong were interrupted by a wiry ferret-eyed man who roughly knocked Castro down, stuck a pistol in his belly, and stripped off the gold Cartier wristwatch he'd received as a gift on a state visit to Paris.

Fidel didn't recognize the robber, but he recognized the prison tattoos on the man's grimy knuckles. Combinado del Este! With amazement Castro realized he was being mugged by a thug that he himself had sprung from prison and put on a boat to Key West in 1980. The bleak beautiful irony made him cough up blood.

Numbed by the morphine, Fidel felt more indignity than pain as the mugger ran away. Before the old man could rise to his knees, a red-haired urchin no older than six plucked the hairpiece from his scalp and dashed down the beach, shouting to his mother that he'd found a dead crow.

Castro, feeling himself hoisted by the armpits, reasonably anticipated dismemberment or evisceration.

"Easy," said the voice, which belonged to a motel security guard. The cheap badge on his shirt said "Joe Sereno." Fidel was grateful to see him.

"You all right?" Sereno asked. "Man, you don't look so good."

In perfect English, Castro gasped, "What is this craziness? These monsters?"

"Just another day at the beach." Sereno smiled ruefully. "The problem, see, it started when they went to topless. The guys, old tourist guys like yourself, come down here to stare at the cuties. Am I right? The gangs, hookers, scumbags they all know this. So they hang on this stretch, just waiting."

Fidel morosely dusted the grit from his chest. Sereno gently led him back toward the Odyssey. "I mean, you're a criminal it's not such a bad deal. Get a tan. Enjoy the naked babes. Mug a few Germans and Canadians, and that's your day."

"Why," rasped Castro, "aren't these terrible people in jail!"

Joe Sereno burst out laughing. "Where you from, old-timer Mars? Come on, let me take you back to your room."

"Thank you, officer."

"By the way, there's something I gotta ask."

Fidel's jaws clenched. The security guy was eyeing him closer now, the way the cleaners had.

"Your name," said Sereno, "it's not really Garcia, is it?"

Less than two hours later, a chartered Gulfstream jet landed at the Opa-Locka airport, where it was met by a black Chevy Blazer. Four men got out and moved toward the plane. The tallest one walked slowly, as if in pain. The others could be seen helping him up the stairs. Minutes later, a station wagon arrived and a fifth person, a woman in a long gown, was led to the jet.

The flight plan indicated the Gulfstream would be heading nonstop to Kingston, Jamaica. This was a fib. The destination was Havana. Fidel Castro was going home to die.

Miami was too damn scary. The deal was off.

The remaining severed head, the one Juan Carlos Reyes imagined would make him president of Cuba, belonged to another expendable Castro double, Jose Paz-Gutierrez.

This fact was known to Castro himself, Cuban State Security, the CIA, and of course Lilia Sands, who on numerous long-ago lonely nights, when Fidel was away had slept with Jose Paz-Gutierrez at a farmhouse in Camagiiey. Of course she'd saved a lock of Jose's hair, as she did for all her lovers.

No one was less surprised than Lilia when Reyes's DNA expert matched with .9999995 certainty the hair from Lilia's cigar box with the severed head in the red Gott cooler. Her secret glee at fooling the munchkin-sized millionaire was tempered by a pang of wistfulness, for of all the Castro doubles Lilia had slept with, Jose Paz-Gutierrez had been the best the one whose embrace most reminded her of Fidelito himself, the one whose earlobe she had once chomped off in ecstasy, just as she had Fidel's.

In fact, though Lilia wouldn't dare confess it, Jose Paz-Gutierrez definitely had Castro beat in one department, lovemaking-wise. The ardent Jose had a much longer ... attention span, if you will. Lilia wondered if that's what had gotten him killed, as Castro's jealous streak was well known.

So she had mixed feelings on this special Friday morning. Oh, she was glad to be back in Havana, holding Fidel's hand as a fussy gringotried to restore the illusion of vitality gluing on the frizzy beard, aligning a new toupee, ruddying the cheeks, powdering the shadows around the hollowing eyes.

Still, Lilia took no joy in knowing that across the Florida Straits, the head of poor Jose Paz-Gutierrez soon would be boorishly displayed for all to see, like a taxidermied fish. Oh well, Lilia thought, it's all for the cause.

As she stroked Fidel's arm, hairless from chemotherapy, she observed a pale stripe on his wrist.

"Where is your watch?" she asked.

"Miami," Castro said sullenly.

"What happened?"

"I got mugged," he said, grimacing at the memory, "by a Marielito. Go ahead and laugh."

"I'm not laughing." Lilia turned, covered her mouth. "Honestly, Fidel, I'm not."

The massive televised rally arranged at Miami's Torch of Friendship by Juan Carlos Reyes was not seen by:

Britt Montero and Fay Leonard, who were sharing bare cinder-block quarters at the South Bimini airfield, under the supervision of an armed Bahamas customs officer;

Mickey Schwartz, who was gambling away his ten-thousand-dollar payday on Paradise Island, where none of the cute croupiers seemed remotedly amused by his stand-up impression of Howard Stern;

Jake Lassiter, who was in a Flagler Street hot tub with the lukewarm ex-wife of his ex-client John Deal;

John Deal, who was on Bird Road shopping for a red Testarossa to go with his black Bentley convertible;

Marlis and Franklin, who were literally mopping up after a fatal cocaine dispute at a FEMA trailer court in Homestead;

Joe Sereno, who was thanking a police review board for reinstating him, and promising to be more careful when arresting incontinent tourists;

and Jimmy Carter, who was in Havana for a rare public appearance and historic announcement by Fidel Castro.

So absorbed in the pomp of his "preinauguration" was Juan Carlos Reyes that he remained unaware of events unfolding simultaneously in Cuba, unaware he was about to share a TV screen five stories high with the same man whose severed noggin he intended to unveil, unaware that local television stations were already receiving a live satellite feed from the presidential palace in Havana.

So that at the climactic moment when Juan Carlos Reyes victoriously hoisted a bearded head for all America to see, a very similar but undead head emerged on a sun-bleached balcony in Cuba. There the real Castro announced a liberal new human rights policy that freed every political prisoner, including (not coincidentally) two of Lilia Sands's nephews.

In Miami, the cheers at the Torch of Friendship ebbed into a confused mass murmuring as the crowd struggled to understand what they were seeing on the huge split screen. On one side was Reyes, waving the goggle-eyed head and proclaiming himself the harbinger of a new democracy in Cuba. On the other side, flanked by former president Carter, was a person who looked very much like Castro, and very much like he was still breathing.

Juan Carlos Reyes sensed the audience was no longer enthralled by his oratory. He spun around and saw what they saw on the giant TV screen.

"Noooooo!" The millionaire wheeled, bellowing into the thicket of microphones. "It's a trick! Can't you see, here is Castro!" He shook the head like a tambourine. "I can prove it, I can prove this is Fidel's head!"

Reyes was handicapped by the fact that, despite his wealth and power, he was not very popular in the exile community. For many years, Cuban-Americans had endured his grandiose promises, vituperative politics, and heavy-handed fund-raising tactics. Now this: a phony Castro head! It was too much.

Members of the crowd registered their scorn by hurling rocks, bottles, and ripe coconuts at Juan Carlos Reyes, who fled the stage at a dead run. He showed fair speed for a short-legged fellow, but the mob chasing him through Bayfront Park was fueled by outrage. When Reyes reached the seawall, he hesitated only briefly before diving into Biscayne Bay. The bearded head went with him.

While Booger didn't know much, he did know where human idiots liked to run their speedboats. From traumatic experience he'd learned to remain submerged in the busiest lanes of the bay, especially the waters between Dodge Island and Bayfront Park.

Thus Booger and his new female friend, having taken a prodigious breath, were safely coasting across the bottom when the yellow Donzi full of would-be playboys roared out of Bayside Marketplace. The boat swung south at the ridiculous speed of fifty-eight knots. At its helm was a seventeen-year-old trust fund troglodyte, culturally intoxicated by his first visit to Hooter's.

Reflexively, Booger glanced upward at the approaching growl of the Donzi. Fifteen feet above him, haplessly flailing into the boat's path, was a man in a business suit. One of his hands clutched something round and mossy-looking, though it definitely wasn't a head of lettuce.

The Booger of forty-eight hours before the febrile, erratic Booger with Flipperian fantasies might have been reminded of poor old Marion, might have shot upward to rescue this wallowing specimen from the deadly propellers that had claimed so many of Booger 's dearest manatee companions.

But the new Booger knew better. The notion of playing hero never entered his unconvoluted brain, which at the moment was singularly focused on procreation. Thirteen hundred pounds of saucy sea cow nooky had paddled into Booger's life, and he was serene beyond distraction.

So he dismissed the human commotion on the surface of the bay; lowered his shoe button eyes and swam onward, nudging and nuzzling his slippery new mate. Booger might have flinched slightly at the familiar thud of the impact above, the sickening whine of cavitating props, but he didn't look up a second time.

Every mammal for himself.

12. THE ODYSSEY Elmore Leonard | Naked Came The Manatee |