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2. THE BIG WET SLEEP Les Standiford

Rand Avenue, 10 PM, a Saturday night.

John Deal sat in his car opposite a tiny neighborhood market, a mile or more from his destination on the far side of Coconut Grove. He was locked in a dead stall, part of an endless line of unmoving traffic, gripping and ungripping the wheel of the vehicle he had come to refer to as the "Hog."

The Hog had begun its automotive life as a Cadillac Seville but it had long since been transformed into a kind of gentleman's El Camino, the passenger cabin cut in half, a tiny pickup bed created where the back seat and trunk had been. Not the sort of thing the folks at Cadillac would approve of, but it wasn't Deal's fault. He'd had to take it in payment on a construction project gone bad; now he couldn't afford anything else.

The fact that he was stuck in gridlock was his fault, however. Trying to make his way through the Grove on a Saturday night what had he been thinking of? He should have gone farther north on U.S. 1, made his way back down to Janice's apartment through the twisty little streets that the Saturday Night Drive crowd hadn't discovered yet. But he'd been distracted, rehearsing his speech, reminding himself to stay composed no matter what Janice said or did ... and now look what he'd done to himself.

He glanced in the mirror at a chopped and channeled Accord that had nosed up to within inches of his rear bumper: there seemed little chance of backing up, making a U-ey out of this line. Worse, a relentless kind of music was blaring from the Accord, its pulsing bass line so powerful that Deal's mirror vibrated, sending the black Accord into a shimmering mirage image, settling back into sharp definition, then blurring again. Horns ahead and behind joined the chorus.

Deal noticed an old black man sitting on a backless kitchen chair outside the market, a cigarette burning between his fingers. His doleful gaze locked with Deal's for a moment, then turned away. Deal felt as if he'd been marked, somehow:

Another Yuppie lemming, a guy so rich he could afford to fart around with a perfectly good Cadillac car, on his way through shantytown, headed for the mindless glitz up ahead.

He could get out, Deal thought, leave the Hog where it was, take a seat beside the old guy, try to convince him otherwise. Explain how he was on his way to see his estranged wife, convince her to come back home again, how he was having trouble with his finances, how we were all in this mess together, just like the Benetton ads said. The old guy could give him his blessing, they could wear colorful sweaters together and be friends.

Sure. And pigs could sing the Hallelujah Chorus.

He did get out of the Hog, though, leaving the door wide open as he stepped up into the Hog's bed for a better look at what might be happening. Slow was one thing, but they hadn't moved at all, not for a good ten minutes.

What he saw filled him with dismay. The junction of Main and Grand, a kind of mini Times Square just opposite the multileveled CocoWalk mall, was bad enough on a normal Saturday endless streams of pedestrians ignoring the signals, la-de-dah-ing through the inching traffic, stopping to chat with the drivers, dodging rickshaw drivers and bikers weaving through it all. But this was way beyond normal.

A pulsing, unmoving throng had jammed the intersection. A roar wafted down the line toward him, and he caught a glimpse of a huge, naked man being borne aloft on the uplifted arms of the crowd. Then he saw another figure bouncing atop the crowd a policeman, he realized. Beer foam shot in streamers from cheering onlookers massed at the CocoWalk railings. Cans arced down, bottles, what looked like a shoe. Then shirts, other articles of clothing fluttering in the breeze.

Another roar from the crowd as a topless girl jumped onto the hood of a car and began an energetic boogie. Deal stepped down from the bed of the Hog, got back in the driver's seat. The mob would make its way right down the line of stalled traffic, he thought. How many of them would it take to lift the Hog, tip it over, turn it into a trampoline?

Deal felt a jolt, then realized the Accord behind him had popped his bumper. He glanced in the mirror. The driver of the Accord, a kid with a ball cap turned backward, was leaning halfway out his window, talking to someone in a car headed in the opposite direction. The Accord bumped him again, hard enough to rock Deal in his seat. The kid was still talking, oblivious.

Deal glanced ahead. There was a bona fide pickup truck in front of him, with what looked like a pile of scuba gear in the back. The crowd was going to love that, he thought dive naked, dive free. He also noted that the pickup had moved slightly, allowing him a couple feet of clearance. Deal checked the mirror again, dropped the Hog in reverse.

He eased back until he felt his bumper engage the Accord's, then gave the Hog some pedal. He felt resistance, pressed down harder. The Hog's engine growled, all eight cylinders getting seriously involved. He heard a cry maybe his tires', maybe the kid's saw through the mirror that smoke was rising from the Hog's rear tires, saw that the kid had lost his balance, was tumbling out his window as the Accord lurched backward.

When he figured he had made enough room, Deal let off the gas, dropped the Hog into drive, leaned hard on the wheel. The Hog turned neatly on its redone suspension, swung about, darted into a gap that had formed as the line of traffic heading out of the Grove began to move. Deal stopped, rolled down his window, motioned to the startled driver of the pickup with the scuba gear. A remarkably attractive woman, he noted. Like him, she seemed old enough to have known better.

"Turn around," he called, motioning to the space that had opened in front of the Hog. She hesitated, staring uncertainly at him. This was Miami, after all. He ignored the wild chorus of horns behind him. "It's a riot," he said. "You don't want to go that way."

She craned her neck for a look just as the pop-pop-pop of gunfire erupted from somewhere. That did it. She threw the truck in reverse, chewed rubber all along the space where the Hog had been. She stopped just short of the still-driverless Accord, dropped into low, and swung the pickup around in front of Deal. In the next instant she was speeding away toward U.S. 1, the scuba gear dancing, a hand and slender arm waving a thank-you as she disappeared. Something about the little drama left Deal with a curious pang, but the horns were deafening at his back and he didn't have long to consider it.

He floored the Hog, roared past the stalled traffic himself. The kid who had been driving the Accord was just struggling up off his hands and knees. You think that was something, wait till you see what's coming next, Deal thought, then had to yank the Hog into an abrupt turn to avoid a new bottleneck headed out of the Grove.

He found himself traveling down an unfamiliar narrow lane now, a tunnel boring through a dense overhang of ficus, Florida holly, and strangler fig. He was forced into another turn and another like running a maze and was still trying to brush aside the image of the striking woman behind the wheel of the dive truck. Was it someone he'd met? he wondered. Or someone he wished he had? In the next instant, he was clutching the wheel tightly as the Hog bottomed out in a huge, rain-filled pothole, spraying water like a Donzi off its prow.

The filthy water was just clearing from his windshield when Deal saw the man, or what he presumed was a man. Though the whole thing couldn't have taken more than a few seconds, Deal's mind registered details with the precision and clarity that only impending disaster can bring. The figure stood in the middle of the gloomy tunnel of foliage, arm upflung in surprise, face twisted in the glare of the Hog's headlights. He seemed to be draped in a tangle of old shrimp netting which itself was studded with still-dripping seaweed, battered lobster-trap buoys, and the assorted detritus you'd expect to find floating the backwaters of the nearby bay these days. There was something odd about the guy's face, a lopsided quality that suggested he'd already had one accident in the not so distant past. He held a broken oar in his other hand something he might have been using as a cane, or a makeshift crutch, and which had probably saved his life.

The man the ancient mariner, Deal found himself thinking vaulted backward, using the point of the oar for leverage, just as Deal slammed on the brakes. The Hog seemed to sail on imperturbably for a moment, until the water sloughed off the linings of the brakes. When they did catch hold, it was with a vengeance. He felt the heavy rear of the car rip loose from the pavement and whip around violently, a force like a giant hand pressing him back in the seat. He was sure that next he'd feel the muffled thud of mariner body meeting sheet metal, but the moment passed, and instead he caught a glimpse of the man's astonished face peering at him as the Hog shot past.

The pale, distorted face receded as if Deal were the stationary one; he watched helplessly as the man was yanked into oblivion by some otherworldly force. Then the front end of the Hog tipped up abruptly, and Deal felt himself plunging down into his own abyss. There was a crunching sound, metal against rock, another, and another, a jolt as his head rammed the roof, a second as it bashed against the wheel.

He was seeing only bright flashes of light now, had lost all sense of orientation. Upside down, sideways, going forward, or back? Impossible to know. He heard a tremendous splash, felt another jolt and a momentary weightlessness before gravity finally caught up with him. Gentle rocking now, and then a slow but steady descent. The smell of seawater, brackish rot, odor of the grave, he thought.

He was in the water and going down. Groggy, he felt his hands grope blindly, frantically for the handle of the door. He sensed a great coolness envelop his chest, his groin, his neck. Strange objects bumped at his face, slid away, curled back again. He felt the door lever slide into his grasp like some odd creature from the deep. He pulled. Kicked reflexively at the door, felt resistance, unlatched his seat belt in a kind of daze.

He felt release then, free drifting in water that was cool and somehow warm at once. His limbs were heavy now, his head lolling in the current. Whatever instinctual source of energy had enabled him to escape had expended itself. He floated beneath the surface, his consciousness teetering, sensing that soon he would open his mouth and take that great last gasp that would fill his lungs with water and sink him like a stone. Worst of all, there was nothing he could do about it, not one thing.

He felt the pressure building in his chest, accompanied by a mounting fire in his brain. He willed his arms to move, his legs to kick, but the signals flew off down blind trails, leaving him adrift, rudderless, a ship with a captain shouting orders from the bridge and no one left in the engine room. As he drifted into darkness, he dreamed that something a hand, or perhaps a diver's fin came to brush against his chest, and then he became aware of a great presence swelling up beneath him. In this dream or vision, he began to rise through the murky water, picking up speed, spiraling upward toward some brilliant pool of light. Aside from the rather hackneyed image of the light, it seemed a lovely dream to him, one in which he felt his face break the surface of the water as if it were a tangible membrane, a passage into some other world, where he could gulp down air like any other man, and simply live and be.

"Just lie still, you." The woman's voice came to him from the darkness. A small voice, ancient, and yet carrying the authority of its years. He blinked his eyes, realized that it wasn't just darkness, that in fact he couldn't see. He raised his hands in a panic, felt hers pull him down.

"You've got some nasty bumps and cuts there," she said. "I've got a poultice resting. It's not to be disturbed."

Deal felt the pressure of cloth, at his face. Yes, maybe he could detect a nimbus of light. He blinked again, felt his lids rustle at the bandages, smelled vague medicinal odors.

"Hospital," he heard himself mumble.

She laughed. "There won't be any hospital tonight, unh-uh. They got the whole of Coconut Grove cordoned off, they do. Waitin' for the fuss to burn itself out."

Deal heard distant shouts, chanting, the double boom of a shotgun. He felt a wave of dizziness sweep over him. He lay back, remembering, trying to comprehend all that had happened.

"Where am I?" he managed, at last. He groped about him, felt crisp sheets, a blanket, realized his clothes were gone, that he was wearing some kind of flannel gown. A lady's nightgown? It couldn't be. Surely it couldn't.

"Keep your hands off those bandages, now, or I'll tie 'em down, you hear me." Deal nodded, rested his hands on his chest.

"You're one lucky boy," she cackled. "Lucky old Booger took a liking to you, lucky I was there to pull you out."


"He's a manatee," she said. "He's the last sane creature that lives in these parts, and that includes me. All the fuss erupted downtown, I went over to have a chat with Booger, see if maybe he thought this was a sign."

"A sign?" Deal's head was swimming again.

"The beginning of the end," she said. "Booger and me got a running bet. Hundred and two, I think I'll be around to witness it, he says we got a ways to go yet. I found him in his little grotto, keeping you propped up on a chunk of boat seat."

The dream was coming back to him now. The vague presence, being propelled upward, toward a pool of light he'd taken for thelight. He shook his head.

"Did you have a flashlight with you?" he asked.

"You think I can see in the dark?" she snorted. "Here, raise up some. I want you to take a drink of this."

He felt a wiry hand under his neck, sensed something warm and steaming at his lips. The smell was bitter, even searing. "What is it?" he said.

"Swamp yarbs," she said. "Now drink it, or I'll hold your nose and pour it down you."

Deal sensed it wasn't a bluff. He was so weak he had no doubt she was capable of doing exactly what she said. He nodded, helped her guide the cup to his lips.

Despite its wretched smell, the brew tasted amazingly good. Licorice, he thought. And something earthy. With an unidentifiable blend of herbs. It was bracing. And just as quickly, soporific. He was drifting again by the time his head hit the pillow.

"Booger showed me what you floated in on," she said.

"I don't know what you mean," Deal said.

"What you had tied to that boat seat," she said.

Deal shook his head. "I ... I fell into the water," he said.

"Course you did," she said. "You wrecked your boat and damn near drowned."

"No," he said. He felt himself spiraling. "I didn't."

"Carrying a thing like that, I'd hate to admit it myself," she said.

Deal wanted to protest again, but he was just too tired.

"I showed it to Booger, though," she cackled. "Fried his apples, I'll tell you. See there, I told 'im. Here comes the end of the world, Booger, just like I said."

He hadn't the slightest idea what she was talking about, but she'd get no argument from him. Not this night. She was still cackling when he went under for good.

1. BOOGER Dave Barry Saturday night, Coconut Grove. | Naked Came The Manatee | 3. BISCAYNE BLUES Paul Levine