On July 16, in the aching torpid heat of the South Florida summer, Terry Whelper stood at the Avis counter at Miami International Airport and rented a bright red Chrysler LeBaron convertible. He had originally signed up for a Dodge Colt, a sensible low-mileage compact, but his wife had told him go on, be sporty for once in your life. So Terry Whelper got the red LeBaron plus the extra collision coverage, in anticipation of Miami drivers. Into the convertible he inserted the family – his wife Gerri, his son Jason, his daughter Jennifer – and bravely set out for the turnpike.
The children, who liked to play car games, began counting all the other LeBarons on the highway. By the time the Whelpers got to Snapper Creek, the total was up to seventeen. "And they're all rentals," Terry muttered. He felt like a fool; every tourist in Miami was driving a red LeBaron convertible.
"But look at all this legroom," said his wife.
From the back seat came Jennifer's voice: "Like, what if it rains?"
"Like, we put up the top," Terry said.
His wife scolded him for being sarcastic with their daughter. "She's only eleven, for heaven's sake."
"Sorry," said Terry Whelper. Then louder, over his shoulder: "Jenny, I'm sorry."
Terry shook his head. "Nothing, hon."
It started raining near Florida City, and of course the convertible top wouldn't go up; something was stuck, or maybe Terry wasn't pushing the right button on the dash. The Whelpers sought shelter at an Amoco station, parked near the full-service pumps and waited for the cloudburst to stop. Terry was dying to tell his wife I-told-you-so, sporty my ass, but she wouldn't look up from the paperback that she was pretending to read.
Jennifer asked, "Like, what if it rains all day and all night?"
"It won't," said Terry, trying hard to be civil.
The shower stopped in less than an hour, and the Whelpers were off again. While the kids used beach towels to dry off the interior of the convertible, Gerri passed around cans of Pepsi-Cola and snacks from the gas station vending machine. In vain Terry fiddled with the buttons on the car radio, trying to find a station that played soft rock.
The Whelpers were halfway down Card Sound Road when a blue pickup truck passed them the other way doing at least eighty. Without warning, something flew out of the truck driver's window and landed in the back seat of the LeBaron. Terry heard Jason yell; then Jennifer started to wail.
"Pull over!" Gerri cried.
"Easy does it," said her husband.
The convertible skidded to a halt in a spray of grass and gravel. The Whelpers scrambled from the car, checked themselves for injuries and reassembled by the side of the road.
"It was two guys," Jason declared, pointing down the road. "White guys, too."
"Are you sure?" asked his mother. The family had been on guard for possible trouble from blacks and Hispanics; a neighbor in Dearborn had given them the scoop on South Florida.
"They looked white to me," Jason said of the assailants.
Terry Whelper frowned. "I don't care if they were purple. Just tell me, what did they throw?"
Jennifer stopped crying long enough to say: "I dunno, but it's alive."
Terry said, "For Christ's sake." He walked over to the convertible and leaned inside for a look. "I don't see anything."
Jennifer cried even harder, a grating subhuman bray. "You...don't...believe...me!" she said, sobbing emphatically with each word.
"Of course we believe you," said her mother.
"I saw it, too," said Jason, who rarely took his sister's side on anything. "Try down on the floor, Dad."
Terry Whelper got into the back of the LeBaron, squeezed down to his knees and peered beneath the seat. The children heard him say, "Holy shit," then he leapt out of the car.
"What is it?" asked his wife.
"It's a rat," said Terry Whelper. "The ugliest goddamn rat I ever saw."
"They threw a rat in our car?"
Jason said, "Too bad we didn't bring Grandpa's gun."
Gerri Whelper looked shaken and confused. "Why would they throw a rat in our car? Is it alive?"
"Very much so," Terry reported. "It's eating from a bag of Raisinets."
"Those are mine!" Jennifer cried.
The Whelpers stood there discussing the situation for fifteen minutes before a highway patrol car pulled up, and a young state trooper asked what was the matter. He listened sympathetically to the story about the rat in the rented LeBaron.
"You want me to call the Avis people?" he asked. "Maybe they'll send another car."
"Actually, we're on a pretty tight schedule," explained Gerri Whelper. "We've got reservations at a motor lodge in Key Largo. They said we had to be there by five or else we lose the rooms."
Jennifer, who had almost stopped crying, said: "I don't care about the motel, I want a different car."
Terry Whelper said to the trooper, "If you could just help me get rid of it."
"It's a big one," Terry said.
"Well, I can probably shoot it."
"Could you?" Gerri said. "Please?"
The trooper said, "Technically, it's against regulations. But since you're from out of town..."
He stepped out of the patrol car and unsnapped the holster strap on his .357.
"Wow!" said Jason.
Jennifer put her arms around her mother's waist. Terry Whelper manfully directed his brood to move safely out of the line of fire. The state trooper approached the LeBaron with the calm air of a seasoned lawman.
"He's under the seat," Terry advised.
"Yeah, I see him."
The trooper fired three times. Then he bolstered the gun, reached into the convertible and picked up what remained of the creature by what remained of its tail. He tossed the misshapen brown lump into some holly bushes.
"Thank you so much," said Gerri Whelper.
"You say it was a blue pickup. You didn't happen to see the license plate?"
"No," said Terry. He was wondering what to tell Avis about the bullet holes in the floorboard. When the kids climbed back in the rental car, their mother said, "Don't touch any of those raisins! We'll get more candy when we get to the Amazing Kingdom."
"Good, I want a Petey Possum Popsicle," Jennifer said, nearly recovered from the trauma. Jason asked if he could keep one of the empty shell casings out of the state trooper's revolver, and the trooper said sure.
Terry Whelper grimly contemplated the upcoming journey in the red, rat-befouled LeBaron. He felt fog-headed and emotionally drained. To think, just that morning he'd been safe and sound in his bed back in Michigan.
"Don't forget to buckle up," said the trooper, holding the door open.
Terry said, "This ever happen before?"
"What do you mean?"
"This rat business."
"I'm sure it has. We don't hear about everything."
The trooper smiled as he closed Terry Whelper's door. "Now, you all have a nice vacation."
In the blue pickup truck, still heading north, Danny Pogue said, "That was the damnedest thing I ever saw."
Bud Schwartz, who was driving, said, "Yeah, that was some shot. If I do say so."
"There was kids in that car."
"It was just a mouse, for Chrissakes."
"It wasn't a mouse, it was a rat." Danny Pogue poked his partner in the shoulder. "What if those was your kids? You like it, somebody throws a fucking rat in their laps?"
Bud Schwartz glanced at the place on his shoulder where Danny Pogue had touched him. Then he looked back at the highway. His bare bony arms got rigid on the steering wheel. "I wasn't exactly aiming for the kids."
After a few strained moments, Bud Schwartz said, "You don't see that many convertibles anymore."
"So when you finally see one, you throw a rat in it? Is that the deal?" Danny Pogue picked at a pair of ripe pimples on the peak of his Adam's apple.
"Let's just drop it," said Bud Schwartz.
But Danny Pogue remained agitated all the way to Florida City. He told Bud Schwartz to let him off in front of the Long John Silver's.
"No way," said Bud Schwartz.
"Then I'll jump outta the goddamn truck."
Danny Pogue would damn sure try it, too, Bud thought. Jump out of the damn truck purely on principles.
Bud Schwartz said, "Hey, you don't want to do that. We've gotta go get your money."
"I'll find my own ride."
"It'll look hinky, we don't show up together."
Danny Pogue said, "I'm not riding nowhere with a guy that throws rats on little kids. Understand?"
"What if I said I was sorry," Bud Schwartz said. "I'm sorry, all right? It was a shitty thing to do. I feel terrible, Danny, honest to God. I feel like a shit."
Danny Pogue gave him a sideways look.
"I mean it," said Bud Schwartz. "You got me feeling so bad I got half a mind to cry. Swear to God, look here – my eyes are all watered up. For a second I was thinking of Bud, Jr., about what I'd do, some asshole throwed a rat or any other damn animal at my boy. Probably kill him, that's what I'd do."
As he spun through this routine, Bud Schwartz was thinking: The things I do to keep him steady.
And it seemed to work. In no time Danny Pogue said, "It's all right, Bud. Least nobody got hurt."
"But don't scare no more little kids, understand?"
Bud Schwartz said, "I won't, Danny. That's a promise."
Ten minutes later, stopped at a traffic light in Cutler Ridge, Danny Pogue turned in the passenger seat and said, "Hey, it just hit me."
He was grinning so wide that you could count all the spaces where teeth used to be.
"What?" said Bud Schwartz.
"I remember you told me that Bud Schwartz wasn't your real name. You said your real name was Mickey Reilly."
"Mike. Mike Reilly," said Bud Schwartz, thinking, Here we go.
"Okay, then how could you have a kid named Bud, Jr.?"
"Well – "
"If your name's Mike."
"Simple. I changed the boy's name when I changed mine."
Danny Pogue looked skeptical. Bud Schwartz said, "A boy oughta have the same name as his daddy, don't you agree?"
"So his real name was – "
"Mike, Jr. Now it's Bud, Jr."
"You say so," said Danny Pogue, grinning again, a jack-o'-lantern with volcanic acne.
"What, you don't believe me?"
"No, I don't believe you," said Danny Pogue, "but it was a damn good story. Whatever your fucking name is."
"Bud is just fine. Bud Schwartz. And let's not fight no more, we're gonna be rich."
Danny Pogue got two beers out of the Styrofoam cooler in the back of the cab. He popped one of the cans for his partner and handed it to him. "I still can't believe they're payin' us ten grand apiece to steal a boxful of rats."
"This is Miami," said Bud Schwartz. "Maybe they're voodoo rats. Or maybe they're fulla dope. I heard where they smuggle coke in French rubbers, so why not rats."
Danny Pogue lifted the box from behind the front seat and placed it carefully on his lap. He leaned down and put his ear to the lid. "Wonder how many's in there," he said.
Bud Schwartz shrugged. "Didn't ask."
The den box was eighteen inches deep, and twice the size of a briefcase. It was made of plywood, painted dark green, with small hinged doors on each end. Air holes had been drilled through the side panels; the holes were no bigger than a dime, but somehow one of the animals had managed to squeeze out. Then it had scaled the front seat and perched on Danny Pogue's headrest, where it had balanced on its hind legs and wiggled its velvety snout in the air. Laughing, Bud Schwartz had deftly snatched it by the tail and dangled it in his partner's face. Over Danny Pogue's objections, Bud Schwartz had toyed with the rodent for six or seven miles, until he'd spotted the red convertible coming the other way down the road. Then he had said, "Watch this," and had tossed the animal out the window, into the passing car.
Now Danny Pogue lifted the green box off his lap and said, "Sure don't weigh much."
Bud Schwartz chuckled. "You want a turn, is that it? Well, go ahead then, grab one."
"But I don't wanna get bit."
"You got to do it real fast, way I did. Hurry now, here comes one of them Winnebagos. I'll slow down when we go by."
Danny Pogue said, "The top of this box ain't even locked."
"So what're you waiting for?" said his partner. "Pop goes the weasel."
After the rat attack, the Whelper family rode in edgy silence until they arrived at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. They parked the red LeBaron in the Mr. Bump-a-Rump lot, Section Jellybean, and took the tram to the main gate. There they came upon a chaotic scene: police cars, an ambulance, TV trucks, news photographers. The ticket turnstiles were all blocked.
"Swell," said Terry Whelper. "Beautiful."
"Maybe they're filming a movie," his wife suggested. "Maybe it's not real."
But it was. The center of attention was a supremely tanned young man in a blue oxford shirt with a dark red club tie, loosened fashionably at the throat. Once all the TV lights were on, the man started to read from a typed sheet of paper. He said he was a spokesperson for the company.
"This is a message for all our friends and visitors to the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills," the man began. "We deeply regret the incident that disturbed today's Summerfest celebration. We are proud of our security arrangements here at the park, and proud of our safety record. Up until today, there had been – and I say this unequivocally – no serious crimes committed within our friendly gates."
In the swell of the crowd, Terry Whelper felt his wife's chin digging into his shoulder blade. "What do you suppose he's talking about?" she said.
The man in the oxford shirt continued: "We believe there was no way to anticipate, much less prevent, what happened this afternoon in the Rare Animal Pavilion."
Terry Whelper said, "This oughta be good." A large woman wearing a damp cotton blouse and a Nikkormat around her neck turned and shot him a dirty look.
The man at the TV microphones was saying, "At approximately 2.15 p.m., two men entered the compound and attacked one of the wildlife exhibits with a sledgehammer, breaking the glass. One of our park employees courageously tried to stop the intruders, but was overpowered and beaten. The two men then grabbed a box of specimens from the exhibit arena and ran. In the confusion, the suspects managed to escape from the park, apparently by mingling with ordinary tourists aboard the Jungle Jerry Amazon Boat Cruise."
Jason Whelper said, "Specimens? What kinda specimens?"
Jennifer announced, "I don't want to go on the Jungle Jerry anymore."
Terry Whelper told the children to be quiet and listen. The tanned man in the blue shirt was saying that the park employee who had so bravely tried to stop the crime was being rushed to the hospital for X-rays.
"Hey, look!" said Jason, pointing.
Somebody in an oversized polyester animal outfit was being loaded into the ambulance.
"That's Robbie Raccoon!" cried Jennifer Whelper. "He must be the one who got hurt."
All around them in the crowd, other tourist children began to whimper and sniffle at the sight of Robbie Raccoon on the stretcher. Jason swore he saw some blood on Robbie Raccoon's nose.
"No, he's going to be fine," said Gerri Whelper. "See there, he's waving at us!"
And, indeed, whoever was inside the Robbie Raccoon costume managed a weak salute to the crowd before the ambulance doors swung closed.
"It's gotta be ninety-eight degrees out here," marveled Terry Whelper. "You'd think they'd get the poor guy out of that raccoon getup."
Terry Whelper's wife whispered urgently to the nape of his neck, "Not in front of Jennifer. She thinks he's real."
"Oh, you're kidding," Terry said.
Under the TV lights, the tan young spokesperson finally was revealing what had been stolen in the daring robbery.
"As many of you know," he said, "the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills is home to several endangered varieties of wildlife. Unfortunately, the animals that were stolen this afternoon are among the rarest, and most treasured, in our live-animal collection. In fact, they were believed to be the last two surviving specimens of the blue-tongued mango vole." Here the handsome spokesman paused dramatically. Then: "The animals were being kept here in a specially climatized habitat, in the hope that they might breed and keep the species alive. Tragically, that dream came to an end this afternoon."
"Mango voles!" exclaimed Jason Whelper. "Dad, did you hear? Maybe that's what landed in our car. Maybe those guys in the pickup truck were the crooks!"
Terry Whelper took his son by the arm and led him back toward the tram, away from the tourist crowd. Gerri and Jennifer followed steadfastly.
Gerri whispered to her husband: "What do you think? Maybe Jason is right."
"I don't know what to think. You were the one who wanted to come to Florida."
Jason cut in: "Dad, there was only two of those mangos left in the whole-wide world. And we shot one!"
"No, we didn't. The policeman did."
"But we told him to!"
Terry Whelper said, "Be quiet, son. We didn't know."
"Your father's right," added Gerri. "How were we to know?"
Jennifer hugged her mother fiercely around the waist. "I'm so scared – can we drive to Epcot instead?"
"Excellent idea," said Terry Whelper. Like a cavalry commander, he raised his right arm and cocked two fingers toward the parking lot. "Everybody back to the car."