Charles Chelsea decreed that there should be no mention of Dr. Will Koocher in the press release. "Stick to Orky," he advised Joe Winder. "Three hundred words max."
"You're asking me to lie."
"No, I'm asking you to omit a few superfluous details. The whale died suddenly overnight, scientists are investigating, blah, blah, blah. Oh, and be sure to include a line that Mr. Francis X. Kingsbury is shocked and saddened." Chelsea paused, put a finger to his chin. "Scratch the 'shocked,' he said. " 'Saddened' is plenty. "Shocked" makes it sound like something, I don't know, something – "
"Out of the ordinary?" said Joe Winder.
"Charlie, you are one sorry bucket of puss."
Chelsea steepled his hands on his chest. Then he unfolded them. Then he folded them once more and said, "Joe, this is a question of privacy, not censorship. Until Dr. Koocher's wife is officially notified, the least we can do is spare her the agony of hearing about it on the evening news."
For a moment, Winder saw two Charles Chelseas instead of one. Somewhere in the cacophonous gearbox of his brain, he heard the hiss of a petcock, blowing off steam. "Charlie," he said blankly, "the man was eaten by a fucking thirty-foot leviathan. This isn't going to remain our little secret very long."
Chelsea's brow wrinkled. "Eventually, yes, I suppose we'll have to make some sort of public statement. Seeing as it was our whale."
Joe Winder leaned forward on one elbow. "Charlie, I'm going to be honest."
"I appreciate that."
"Very soon I intend to kick the living shit out of you."
Chelsea stiffened. He shifted in his chair. "I don't know what to make of a remark like that."
Joe Winder imagined his eyeballs pulsating in the sockets, as if jolted by a hot wire.
Charles Chelsea said, "You mean, punch me? Actually punch me?"
"Repeatedly," said Winder, "until you are no longer conscious."
The publicity man's voice was plaintive, but it held no fear. "Do you know what kind of day I've had? I've dealt with two dead bodies – first the man on the bridge, and now the vole doctor. Plus I've been up to my knees in whale guts. I'm drained, Joe, physically and emotionally drained. But if it makes you feel better to beat me up, go ahead."
Joe Winder said he was a reasonable man. He said he would reconsider the beating if Charles Chelsea would show him the suicide note allegedly written by Dr. Will Koocher.
Chelsea unlocked a file drawer and took out a sheet of paper with block printing on it. "It's only a Xerox," he said, handing it to Winder, "but still it breaks your heart."
It was one of the lamest suicide notes that Joe Winder had ever seen. In large letters it said:
"TO MY FRIENDS AND FAMILY,
I SORRY BUT I CAN'T GO ON. NOW THAT MY WORKS IS OVER, SO AM I."
The name signed at the bottom was "William Bennett Koocher, PhD."
Winder stuffed the Xerox copy in his pocket and said, "This is a fake."
"I know what you're thinking, Joey, but it wasn't only the voles that got him down. There were problems at home, if you know what I mean."
"My goodness." Winder whistled. "Problems at home. I had no idea."
Chelsea continued: "And I know what else you're thinking. Why would anybody kill himself in this...extreme fashion? Jumping in a whale tank and all."
"It struck me as a bit unorthodox, yes."
"Well, me too," said Chelsea, regaining some of his starch, "until I remembered that Koocher couldn't swim a lick. More to the point, he was deathly afraid of sharks. It's not so surprising that he chose to drown himself here, indoors, rather than the ocean."
"And the green shirt?"
"Obviously he wasn't aware of Orky's, ah, problem."
Joe Winder blinked vigorously in an effort to clear his vision. He said, "The man's spine was snapped like a twig."
"I am told," said Charles Chelsea, "that it's not as bad as it appears. Very quick, and nearly painless." He took out a handkerchief and discreetly dried the palms of his hands. "Not everyone has the stomach for using a gun," he said. "Myself, I'd swallow a bottle of roach dust before I'd resort to violence. But, anyway, I was thinking: Maybe this was Koocher's way of joining the lost voles. A symbolic surrender to Nature, if you will. Sacrificing himself to the whale."
Chelsea squared the corners of the handkerchief and tucked it into a pants pocket. He looked pleased with his theory. Sagely he added, "In a sense, what happened that night in Orky's tank was a purely natural event: Dr. Koocher became part of the food chain. Who's to say he didn't plan it that way?*
Joe Winder stood up, clutching the corners of Charles Chelsea's desk. "It wasn't a suicide," he said, "and it wasn't an accident."
"Then what, Joe?"
"I believe Koocher was murdered."
"Oh, for God's sake. At the Amazing Kingdom?"
Again Winder felt the sibilant whisper from a valve letting off pressure somewhere deep inside his skull. He reached across the desk and got two crisp fistfuls of Chelsea's blue oxford shirt. "I sorry but I can't go on?"
Perplexed, Chelsea shook his head.
Joe Winder said, "The man was a PhD, Charlie. I sorry but I can't go on? Tonto might write a suicide note like that, but not Dr. Koocher."
Chelsea pulled himself free of Winder's grip and said: "It was probably just a typo, Joe. Hell, the man was terribly depressed and upset. Who proofreads their own damn suicide note?"
Pressing his knuckles to his forehead, Winder said, "A typo? With a Magic Marker, Charlie? I sorry is not a bummed-out scientist making a mistake; it's an illiterate moron trying to fake a suicide note."
"I've heard just about enough." Chelsea circled the desk and made for the door. He stepped around Winder as if he were a rattlesnake.
Chelsea didn't leave the office. He held the door open for Joe Winder, and waited.
"I see," said Winder. On his way out, he stopped to smooth the shoulders of Chelsea's shirt, where he had grabbed him.
"No more talk of murder," Charles Chelsea said. "I want you to promise me."
"All right, but on the more acceptable subject of suicide – who was the dead guy hanging from the Card Sound Bridge?"
"I've no idea, Joe. It doesn't concern us."
"It concerns me."
"Look, I'm starting to worry. First you threaten me with physical harm, now you're blabbing all these crazy theories. It's alarming, Joe. I hope I didn't misjudge your stability."
"I suspect you did."
Warily, Chelsea put a hand on Winder's arm. "We've got a tough week ahead. I'd like to be able to count on you."
"I'm a pro, Charlie."
"That's my boy. So you'll give me Orky by four o'clock?"
"No sweat," Winder said. "Three hundred words."
"Max," reminded Charles Chelsea, "and keep it low key."
"My middle name," said Joe Winder.
In the first draft of the press release, he wrote:
Orky the killer whale, a popular but unpredictable performer at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, died suddenly last night after asphyxiating on a foreign object.
Chelsea sent the press release back, marked energetically in red ink.
In the second draft, Joe Winder wrote:
Orky the whale, one of the most colorful animal stars at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, passed away last night of sudden respiratory complications.
Chelsea returned it with a few editing suggestions in blue ink.
In the third draft, Winder began:
Lovable Orky the whale, one of the most colorful and free-spirited animal stars at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, was found dead in his tank this morning. While pathologists conducted tests to determine the cause of death, Francis X. Kingsbury, founder of the popular family theme park, expressed deep sorrow over the sudden loss of this majestic creature.
"We had come to love and admire Orky," Kingsbury said. "He was as much a part of our family as Robbie Raccoon or Petey Possum."
Joe Winder sent the press release up to Charles Chelsea's office and decided not to wait for more revisions. He announced that he was going home early to have his testicles reattached.
Before leaving the park, Winder stopped at a pay phone near the Magic Mansion and made a few calls. One of the calls was to an old newspaper source who worked at the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office. Another call was to the home of Mrs. Will Koocher, where a friend said she'd already gone back to Ithaca to await her husband's coffin. A third phone call went to Nina at home, who listened to Joe Winder's sad story of the dead vole doctor, and said: "So the new job isn't working out, is that what you're saying?"
"In a nutshell, yes."
"If you ask me, your attitude is contributing to the problem."
Joe Winder spotted the acne-speckled face of Pedro Luz, peering suspiciously from behind a Snappy-the-Troll photo gazebo, where tourists were lined up to buy Japanese film and cameras. Pedro Luz was again sucking on the business end of an intravenous tube; the tube snaked up to a bottle that hung from a movable metal sling. Whenever Pedro Luz took a step, the IV rig would roll after him. The liquid dripping from the bottle was the color of weak chicken soup.
Joe Winder said to Nina: "My attitude is not a factor."
"Joe, you sound..."
"Different. You sound different."
"Charlie made me lie in the press release."
"And this comes as a shock? Joe, it's a whole different business from before. We talked about this at length when you took the job."
"I can fudge the attendance figures and not lose a minute of sleep. Covering up a murder is something else."
On Nina's end he heard the rustling of paper. "I want to read you something," she said.
"Not now, please."
"Joe, it's the best thing I've ever done."
Winder glanced over toward the Snappy photo gazebo, but Pedro Luz had slipped out of sight.
Nina began to read:
Last night I dreamed I fell asleep on a diving board; the highest one, fifty meters. It was a hot steamy day, so I took my top off and lay down. I was so high up that no one but the sea gulls could see me. The sun felt wonderful. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep —
"Not 'meters,' " Winder cut in. " 'Meters' is not a sexy word."
Nina kept going:
When I awoke, you were standing over me, naked and brown from the sun. I tried to move but I couldn't – you had used the top of my bikini to tie my hands to the board. I was helpless, yet afraid to struggle...we were up so high. But then you knelt between my legs and told me not to worry. Before long, I forgot where we were....
"Not bad." Joe Winder tried to sound encouraging, but the thought of trying to have sex on a high diving board made his stomach pitch.
Nina said: "I want to leave something to the imagination. Not like Miriam, she's unbelievable. I took chew in my mouth and sock like a typhoon."
Winder conceded that this was truly dreadful.
"I've got to listen to that pulp all night long," Nina said. "While she's clipping her toenails!"
"And I thought I had problems."
She said, "Was that sarcasm? Because if it was – "
The telephone receiver was getting heavy in Joe Winder's hand. He wedged it in the crook of his shoulder and said, "Can I tell you what I was thinking just now? I was thinking about the gastric secretions inside a killer whale's stomach. I was thinking how unbelievably powerful the digestive juices must be in order for a whale to be able to eat swordfish beaks and seal bones and giant squid gizzards and the like."
In a flat voice, Nina said, "I have to go now, Joe. You're getting morbid again."
"I guess I am."
The click on the other end seemed an appropriate punctuation.
On the way home he decided to stop and try some bonefishing at his secret spot. He turned off County Road 905 and came to the familiar gravel path that led through the hardwoods to the mangrove shore.
Except the woods were gone. The buttonwoods, the mahogany, the gumbo-limbos – all obliterated. So were the mangroves.
Joe Winder got out of his car and stared. The hammock had been flattened; he could see all the way to the water. It looked as if a twenty-megaton bomb had gone off. Bulldozers had piled the dead trees in mountainous tangles at each corner of the property.
Several hundred yards from Joe Winder's car, in the center of what was now a vast tundra of scrabbled dirt, a plywood stage had been erected. The stage was filled with men and women, all dressed up in the dead of summer. A small crowd sat in folding chairs laid out in rows in front of the stage. Joe Winder could hear the brassy strains of "America the Beautiful" being played by a high-school band, its lone tuba glinting in the afternoon sun. The song was followed by uneven applause. Then a man stood up at a microphone and began to speak, but Joe Winder was too far away to hear what was being said.
In a daze, Winder kicked out of his trousers and changed into his cutoffs. He got his fly rod out of the trunk of the car and assembled it. To the end of the monofilament leader he attached a small brown epoxy fly that was intended to resemble a crustacean. The tail of the fly was made from deer hair; Winder examined it to make sure it was bushy enough to attract fish.
Then he tucked the fly rod under his left arm, put on his Polaroid sunglasses and marched across the freshly flattened field toward the stage. Absolutely nothing of logic went through his mind.
The man at the microphone turned out to be the mayor of Monroe County, Florida. It was largely a ceremonial title that was passed in odd-numbered years from one county commissioner to another, a tradition interrupted only by death or indictment. The current mayor was a compact fellow with silvery hair, olive skin and the lean fissured face of a chain-smoker.
"This is a grand day for the Florida Keys," the mayor was saying. "Nine months from today, this will be a gorgeous fairway." A burst of masculine clapping. "The sixteenth fairway, if I'm not mistaken. A four-hundred-and-twenty-yard par-four dogleg toward the ocean. Is that about right, Jake?"
A heavyset man sitting behind the mayor grinned enormously in acknowledgment. He had squinty eyes and a face as brown as burned walnut. He waved at the audience; the hearty and well-practiced wave of a sports celebrity. Joe Winder recognized the squinty-eyed man as Jake Harp, the famous professional golfer. He looked indefensibly ridiculous in a bright lemon blazer, brown beltless slacks, shiny white loafers and no socks.
At the microphone, the mayor was going on about the championship golf course, the lighted tennis courts, the his-and-her spas, the posh clubhouse with its ocean view and, of course, the exclusive luxury waterfront homesites. The mayor was effervescent in his presentation, and the small overdressed audience seemed to share his enthusiasm. The new development was to be called Falcon Trace.
"And the first phase," said the mayor, "is already sold out. We're talking two hundred and two units!"
Joe Winder found an empty chair and sat down. He propped the fly rod in his lap so that it rose like a nine-foot CB antenna out of his crotch. He wondered why he hadn't heard about this project, considering that the property abutted the southern boundary of the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. He didn't remember seeing anything in the newspapers about a new country club. He felt a homicidal churning in his belly.
Not again, he thought. Not again, not again, not again.
The mayor introduced Jake Harp – "one of the greatest cross-handed putters of all time" – and the audience actually rose to its feet and cheered.
Jake Harp stood at the podium and waved ebulliently. Waved and waved, as if he were the bloody pope.
"Welcome to Falcon Trace," he began, reading off an index card. "Welcome to my new home."
More clapping as everyone settled back in their chairs.
"You know, I've won the PGA three times," said Jake Harp, "and finished third in the Masters twice. But I can honestly say that I was never so honored as when y'all selected me as the touring pro for beautiful Falcon Trace."
A voice piped up near the stage: "You rot in hell!"
A strong impassioned voice – a woman. The crowd murmured uncomfortably. Jake Harp nervously cleared his throat, a tubercular grunt into the microphone.
Again the woman's voice rose: "We don't need another damn golf course. Why don't you go back to Palm Springs with the rest of the gangsters!"
Now she was standing. Joe Winder craned to get a good look.
The famous golfer tried to make a joke. Painfully he said, "I guess we got ourselves a golf widow in the audience."
"No," the woman called back, "a real widow."
On stage, Jake Harp bent over and whispered something to the mayor, who was smoking fiercely. Someone signaled to the conductor of the high-school band, which adroitly struck up a Michael Jackson dance number. Meanwhile three uniformed sheriff's deputies materialized and edged toward the rude protester. The woman stood up, shook a fist above the silvery puff that was her head and said something that Joe Winder couldn't quite hear, except for the word "bastard."
Then she put on a floppy pink Easter bonnet and permitted herself to be arrested.
Well, hello, thought Winder. The lady from the Wildlife Rescue Corps, the one who'd slipped him the note at the Amazing Kingdom.
Joe Winder watched the deputies lead the old woman away. He wanted to follow and ask what in the hell was going on, but she was quickly deposited in the back of a squad car, which sped off toward Key Largo. As Jake Harp resumed his speech, Winder got up and walked past the stage toward the ocean. In a few minutes he found the familiar stretch of shoreline where he usually searched for bonefish, but the water was too milky to see over the tops of his own sneakers. As he waded into the flats, he could hear the high-school band begin to play "The Star Spangled Banner," signaling the climax of the groundbreaking ceremony.
As he slid his feet across the rocks and sea grass, Joe Winder started false-casting his fly, stripping out the line as he moved forward. The water was murky, roiled, just a mess. There would be no fish here, Winder knew, but still he drove the meat of the line seventy feet hard into the wind, and watched the tiny plop of the fly when it landed.
Joe Winder fished in manic motion because he knew time was running out. Before long, this fine little bay would be a stagnant ruin and the only fish worth catching would be gone, spooked by jet skis, sail-boarders, motorboats and plumes of rank sewage blossoming from submerged drainage pipes.
Welcome to Falcon Trace.
He took another step and felt something seize his right ankle. When he tried to pull free, he lost his balance and fell down noisily in the water. He landed on his ass but quickly rolled to his knees, careful to hold the expensive Seamaster fly reel high and dry. Irritably Winder groped beneath the surface for the thing that had tripped him.
His fingers closed around the slick branch of a freshly cut tree. He lifted it out of the water, examined it, then let it drop again. A red mangrove, bulldozed, ripped out by the roots and dumped on the flats. Illegal as hell, but who besides the fish would ever know?
Joe Winder knelt in the shallows and thought about what to do next. Back on the soon-to-be-sixteenth hole, the band played on. After a while, the music stopped and voices could be heard, collegial chamber-of-commerce good-old-boy voices, dissipating in the afternoon breeze. Not long afterward came the sounds of luxury cars being started.
Eventually the place got quiet, and Joe Winder knew he was alone again in his favorite fishing spot. He stayed on his knees in the water until the sun went down.
In the evening he drove out to the Card Sound Bridge and parked. He got a flashlight from the trunk and began to walk along the road, keeping close to the fringe of the trees and playing the light along the ground. Soon he found the place where he had been beaten by the two goons, Angel and Spearmint Breath. Here Joe Winder slowed his pace and forced himself to concentrate.
He knew what he was looking for: a trail.
He'd spent most of his childhood outdoors, cutting paths to secret hideaways in the hammocks, glades and swamps. At a young age he had become an expert woodsman, a master of disappearing into impenetrable pockets where no one else wanted to go. Every time his father bought a new piece of property, Joe Winder set out to explore each acre. If there was a big pine, he would climb it; if there was a lake or a creek, he'd fish it. If there was a bobcat, he'd track it; a snake, he'd catch it.
He would pursue these solitary adventures relentlessly until the inevitable day when the heavy machinery appeared, and the guys in the hard hats would tell him to beat it, not knowing he was the boss's kid.
On those nights, lying in his bed at home, he would wait for his mother to come in and console him. Often she would suggest a new place for his expeditions, a mossy parcel off Old Cutler Road, or twenty acres in the Gables, right on the bay. Pieces his father's company had bought, or was buying, or was considering.
Raw, tangled, hushed, pungent with animals, buzzing with insects, glistening with extravagant webs, pulsing, rustling and doomed. And always the portal to these mysterious places was a trail.
Which is what Winder needed on this night.
Soon he found it: an ancient path of scavengers, flattened by raccoons and opossums but widened recently by something much larger. As Winder slipped into the woods, he felt ten years old again. He followed the trail methodically but not too fast, though his heart was pounding absurdly in his ears. He tried to travel quietly, meticulously ducking boughs and stepping over rotted branches. Every thirty or so steps, he would turn off the flashlight, hold his breath and wait. Before long, he could no longer hear the cars passing on Card Sound Road. He was so deep in the wetlands that a shout or a scream would be swallowed at once, eternally.
He walked for fifteen minutes before he came upon the remains of a small campfire. Joe Winder knelt and sniffed at the half-burned wood; somebody had doused it with coffee. He poked at the acrid remains of something wild that had been cooked in a small rusty pan. He swung the flashlight in a semicircle and spotted a dirty cooler, some lobster traps and a large cardboard box with the letters "EDTIAR" stamped on the side. On the ground, crumpled into a bright pile, was a fluorescent orange rainsuit. Winder unfolded it, held it up to gauge the size. Then he put it back the way he found it.
Behind him, a branch snapped and a voice said, "How do you like the new pants?"
Winder wheeled around and pointed the flashlight as if it were a pistol.
The man was eating – and there was no mistaking it – a fried snake on a stick.
"Cottonmouth," he said, crunching off a piece. "Want some?"
"Then we've got nothing to talk about."
Joe Winder politely took a bite of snake. "Like chicken," he said.
The man was cleaning his teeth with a fishhook. He looked almost exactly as Joe Winder remembered, except that the beard was now braided into numerous silvery sprouts that drooped here and there from the man's jaw. He was probably in his early fifties, although it was impossible to tell. The mismatched eyes unbalanced his face and made his expression difficult to read; the snarled eyebrows sat at an angle of permanent scowl. He wore a flowered pink shower cap, sunglasses on a lanyard, a heavy red plastic collar and no shirt. At first Joe Winder thought that the man's chest was grossly freckled, but in the flashlight's trembling beam the freckles began to hover and dance: mosquitoes, hundreds of them, feasting on his blood.
In a strained voice Joe Winder said, "I can't help but notice that thing on your neck."
"Radio collar." The man lifted his chin so Winder could see it. "Made by Telonics. A hundred fifty megahertz. I got it off a dead panther."
"Does it work?" Winder asked.
"Like a charm." The man snorted. "Why else would I be wearing it?"
Joe Winder decided this was something they could chat about later. He said, "I didn't mean to bother you. I just wanted to thank you for what you did the other night."
The stranger nodded. "No problem. Like I said, I got a pair of pants out of the deal." He slapped himself on the thigh. "Canvas, too."
"Listen, that little guy – Angel Gaviria was his name. They found him hanging under the bridge." Winder's friend at the medical examiner's office had confirmed the identity.
"What do you know," the stranger said absently.
"I was wondering about the other one, too," said Winder, "since they were trying to kill me."
"Don't blame you for being curious. By the way, they call me Skink. And I already know who you are. And your daddy, too, goddamn his soul."
He motioned for Joe Winder to follow, and crashed down a trail that led away from the campfire. "I went through your wallet the other night," Skink was saying, "to make sure you were worth saving."
"These days I'm not so sure."
"Shit," said Skink. "Don't start with that."
After five minutes they broke out of the hardwoods into a substantial clearing. A dump, Joe Winder noticed.
"Yeah, it's lovely," muttered Skink. He led Winder to the oxidized husk of an abandoned Cadillac, and lifted the trunk hatch off its hinges. The nude body of Spearmint Breath had been fitted inside, folded as neatly as a beach chair.
"Left over from the other night," Skink explained. "He ran out of steam halfway up the big bridge. Then we had ourselves a talk."
"A bad person," Skink said. "He would've brought more trouble."
An invisible cloud of foul air rose from the trunk. Joe Winder attempted to breathe through his mouth.
Skink played the beam ol the flashlight along the dead goon's swollen limbs. "Notice the skeeters don't go near him," he said, "so in one sense, he's better off."
Joe Winder backed away, speechless. Skink handed him the light and said, "Don't worry, this is only temporary." Winder hoped he wasn't talking to the corpse.
Skink replaced the trunk hatch on the junked Cadillac. "Asshole used to work Security at the Kingdom. He and Angel baby. But I suppose you already knew that."
"All I know," said Winder, "is that everything's going bad and I'm not sure what to do."
"Tell me about it. I still can't believe they shot John Lennon and it's been – what, ten years?" He sat down heavily on the trunk of the car. "You ever been to the Dakota?"
"Once," Joe Winder said.
"What's it like?"
Skink twirled the fishhook in his mouth, bit off the barb, and spit it out savagely. "Some crazy shithead with a .38 – it's the story of America, isn't it?"
"We live in violent times. That's what they say."
"Guys like that, they give violence a bad name." Skink stretched out on the trunk, and stared at the stars.
"Sometimes I think about that bastard in jail, how he loves all the publicity. Went from being nobody to The Man Who Shot John Lennon. I think some pretty ugly thoughts about that."
"It was a bad day," Joe Winder agreed. He couldn't tell if the man was about to sleep or explode.
Suddenly Skink sat up. With a blackened fingernail he tapped the radio collar on his neck. "See, it's best to keep moving. If you don't move every so often, a special signal goes out. Then they think the panther's dead and they all come searching."
"Rangers," Skink replied. "Game and Fish."
"But the panther is dead."
"You're missing the whole damn point."
As usual. Joe Winder wondered which way to take it, and decided he had nothing to lose. "What exactly are you doing out here?" he asked.
Skink grinned, a stunning, luminous movie-star grin.
"Waiting," he said.