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FIFTEEN

On Sunday, July 22, Charles Chelsea got up at eight-thirty, showered, shaved, dressed (navy slacks, Cordovan loafers, blue oxford shirt, burgundy necktie), trimmed his nose hairs, splashed on about three gallons of Aramis and drove off to work in his red Mazda Miata, for which he had paid thirty-five hundred dollars over dealer invoice.

Chelsea had two important appointments at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. One of them would be routine, and one promised to be unpleasant. He had not slept well, but he didn't feel exceptionally tired. In fact, he felt surprisingly confident, composed, tough; if only he could remain that way until his meeting with Joe Winder.

A crew from Channel 7 was waiting outside the main gate. The reporter was an attractive young Latin woman wearing oversized sunglasses. Chelsea greeted her warmly and told her she was right on time. They all got in a van, which was driven by a man wearing a costume of bright neoprene plumes. The man introduced himself as Baldy the Eagle, and said he was happy to be their host. He began a long spiel about the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills until Charles Chelsea flashed his ID badge, at which point the bird man shrugged and shut up. Chelsea slapped his arm when he tried to bum a Marlboro off the Channel 7 cameraman.

When they arrived at the killer-whale tank, Chelsea stepped from the van and held the door for the reporter, whose first name was Maria. Chelsea led the way inside the marine stadium, where the TV crew unpacked and began to set up the equipment. Chelsea sat next to Maria in the front row, facing the empty blue pool. Above them, men on scaffolds were sandblasting the word "Orky" from the coral-colored wall.

Chelsea said, "I guess the others will be along soon."

Maria removed her sunglasses and brushed her hair. She took out a spiral notebook and flipped to a blank page.

"The other stations," Chelsea said, "they must be running a little late."

Five others had received the same fax as Channel 7 had. Surely more crews would show up it was Sunday, after all, the slowest news day of the week.

Maria said, "Before we go on the air "

"You want some background," Chelsea said helpfully. "Well, to be perfectly frank, Orky's death left us with a rather large vacancy. Here we have this beautiful saltwater tank, as you see, and a scenic outdoor stadium. A facility like this is too special to waste. We thought about getting another whale, but Mr. Kingsbury felt it would be inappropriate. He felt Orky was irreplaceable."

Charles Chelsea glanced over Maria's shoulder to see the Minicam pointed at him. Its red light winked innocuously as the tape rolled. The cameraman was on his knees. Squinting through the viewfinder, he signaled for Chelsea to keep talking.

"Are we on?" the PR man said. "What about the mike? I don't have a mike."

The cameraman pointed straight up. Chelsea raised his eyes. A gray boom microphone, the size of a fungo bat, hung over his head. The boom was controlled by a sound man standing to Chelsea's right. The man wore earphones and a Miami Dolphins warm-up jacket.

Maria said, "You mentioned Orky. Could you tell us what your staff has learned about the whale's death? What exactly killed it?"

Chelsea fought to keep his Adam's apple from bobbing spasmodically, as it often did when he lied. "The tests," he said, "are still incomplete."

Maria's warm brown eyes blinked inquisitively. "There's a rumor that the whale died during an encounter with an employee of the Amazing Kingdom."

"Oh, that's a good one." Chelsea laughed stiffly. "Where did you hear that?"

"Is it true?"

The camera's blinking red light no longer seemed harmless. Charles Chelsea said, "I'm not going to dignify such a question by responding."

The reporter said nothing, just let the tape roll. Let him choke on the silence. It worked.

"We did have a death that night," Chelsea admitted, toying with his cuffs. "An employee of the park apparently took his own life. It was very, very tragic "

"What was the name of this employee?"

Chelsea's tone became cold, reproachful. "It is our strict policy not to discuss such matters publicly. There is an issue of privacy, and respect for the family."

Maria said, "The rumor is "

"We don't respond to rumors, Ms. Rodriguez." Now Chelsea was leaning forward, lecturing. The boom mike followed him. "Would you like to hear about our newest attraction, or not?"

She smiled like a moray eel. "That's why we're here."

Oh no it isn't, thought Chelsea, trying not to glare, trying not to perspire, trying not to look like the unvarnished shill he was.

"I brought a bathing suit," Maria said, "as you suggested."

"Maybe we should wait for the others."

"I think we're it, Mr. Chelsea. I don't think any of the other stations are coming."

"Fine." He tried not to sound disappointed.

The cameraman stopped taping. Chelsea dabbed his forehead in relief; he needed to collect himself, recover from the ambush. Everybody wants to be Mike Wallace, he thought bitterly. Everybody's a hardass.

Maria picked up a tote bag and asked directions to the lady's room. When she returned, she was wearing a tight melon-colored tonga that required continual adjustment. At the sight of her, Charles Chelsea inadvertently licked the corners of his mouth. It wasn't so bad after all, coming to work on a Sunday.

"Should I get in?" Maria asked.

"Sure." Chelsea signaled across the pool to a young man dressed in khaki shorts. This was one of the trainers.

Maria slipped into the whale pool, dipped her head underwater, and smoothed her hair straight back. The tape was rolling again.

Eyes twinkling, she smiled up at the camera. The guy with the boom mike leaned over the wall of the tank to capture her words.

"Hi, this is Maria Rodriguez. Today we're visiting the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills in North Key Largo. As you can see, it's a gorgeous summer day "

Chelsea was thinking: Good girl, stick to the fluff.

" and we're about to meet the newest star of the Kingdom's outdoor marine show. His name is Dickie the Dolphin...cut! Hold it, Jimmy."

The cameraman stopped the tape. Bobbing in the whale pool, Maria groped beneath the surface, frowned and spun away. Chelsea could see that she was struggling to realign the bathing suit.

"Damn thing's riding up my crack."

"Take your time," said the cameraman. "We got plenty of light."

Moments later, Maria was ready again; fresh, sleek, languid. She splashed herself lightly in the face so that droplets glistened in her eyelashes; Charles Chelsea was transfixed.

"Hi, this is Maria Rodriguez reporting from the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills in North Key Largo. As you can see, it's a gorgeous summer day in South Florida perfect for a swim with the newest star of the Amazing Kingdom's marine show. His name is Dickie the Dolphin and, starting tomorrow, you can swim with him, too!"

Chelsea cued the trainer, who pulled the pin on the gate to the whale pool. Pushing a V-shaped wake, the dolphin charged from the holding tank and sounded.

The TV reporter continued: "It's the latest concept in marine theme parks customer participation. Instead of sitting in the bleachers and watching these remarkable mammals do tricks, you can actually get in the water and play with them. It costs a little more, but believe me it's worth it."

A few yards behind her, Dickie the Dolphin rolled, blowing air noisily. Maria kept her poise, glancing over one shoulder with a breezy, affectionate smile. Chelsea was impressed; she had the whole script memorized.

Turning back to the camera, Maria said: "To be in the water with these gentle, intelligent creatures is an experience you'll never forget. Scientists say the dolphin's brain is actually larger than ours, and much of their complex social behavior remains a mystery...."

Dickie the Dolphin surfaced lazily near Maria, who grabbed its dorsal fin with both hands. Chelsea stood up quickly and waved a warning, but it was too late. The dolphin carried the TV reporter across the top of the water; she closed her eyes and squealed with childlike excitement.

"Great fucking video," remarked Jimmy the cameraman, panning expertly with the action.

The boom man said, "She's getting out of range."

Charles Chelsea cupped his hands and shouted. "Let go! No rides allowed!"

Maria couldn't hear a word. She was holding her breath underwater while the dolphin imitated a torpedo. Every few seconds her long brown legs would slice the surface as she was dragged along, like the tail of a kite. Chelsea bit his lip and watched in queasy silence. Finally Maria splashed to the surface and she was laughing, thank God! She thought it was all in fun, and maybe it was.

The sound man scurried along the rim of the tank and repositioned the boom. Giggling, short of breath, Maria's eyes found the camera. She said, "Folks, this is unbelievable. Bring the family, you're gonna love it!" Dickie the Dolphin appeared at her side, and she stroked its sleek flank. Wondrously, it seemed to nuzzle her bosom with its snout.

"He's so adorable" Maria exclaimed.

From the feeding platform on the side of the tank, the trainer called out, "Hey, be careful!" Then he started peeling off his khakis.

"Such friendly animals," Maria was saying. "Notice how they always look like they're smiling!"

Dickie the Dolphin slapped its tail on the surface and pushed even closer. Maria threw both arms around the slippery mammal, which obligingly rolled on its back.

Chelsea saw the trainer dive in. He saw Maria's expression change from tenderness to awe. Then he saw the dolphin hook her with its flippers and drag her down.

When she broke to the top, Maria's giggle had become a low fearful moan. As the dolphin's dark form appeared beneath her, she seemed to rise from the water. Then, just as slowly, the creature drew her under.

The cameraman muttered that he was running out of tape. A voice behind him said: "You'll miss the best part."

It was Joe Winder. He stood next to Charles Chelsea, who was clutching the rail with knuckles as pink as shrimp. In the water, the trainer was trying without much success to separate the dolphin from the TV reporter.

Chelsea said to Winder: "Maybe it's a new trick "

"It's no trick. He's trying to boink her."

"That's not funny, Joe."

Winder pointed. "What do you think that is? See?"

"I I don't know."

"It's a dolphin shlong, Charlie. One of Nature's marvels."

Chelsea began to stammer.

"They get in moods," Joe explained. "Same as dogs."

"My God."

"Don't worry, Charlie, it'll pass."

With the trainer's help, Maria Rodriguez finally broke free from Dickie the Dolphin's embrace. Cursing, tugging at her tonga, she paddled furiously toward the ladder on the wall of the tank.

"Faster!" Charles Chelsea hollered. "Here he comes again!"

Two hours later, he was still trying to apologize without admitting the truth. "Sometimes they play too rough, that's all."

"Playing?" Maria sniffed sarcastically. "Excuse me, Mr. Chelsea, but I know a dick when I see one." She had changed back to TV clothes, although her hair was still wrapped in a towel. "I ought to sue your ass," she said.

They were sitting in Chelsea's office the reporter, Charles Chelsea, and Joe Winder. The crew had returned to the truck to put the dish up, just in case.

"Come on," Winder said to Maria, "be a sport."

"What?" She gave him an acid glare. "What did you say?" She whipped the towel off her head and tossed it on the floor.

Very impolite, Winder thought, and unprofessional. "Take it easy," he said. "Nothing unspeakable happened."

Maria pointed a finger in his face and said, "Someone could get killed out there."

Charles Chelsea was miserable. "How can we make it up to you?" he asked Maria Rodriguez. "How about we comp you some passes to the Wild Bill Hiccup show?"

She was gone before he could come up with something better. On her way out, she kicked at the towel.

Joe Winder said, "Don't worry, she won't sue."

"How do you know?"

"It's too embarrassing. Hell, she'll probably destroy the tape on the way back to Miami."

Defensively Chelsea said, "She wasn't supposed to grab the dolphin. No touching is allowed swimming only."

"This was a terrible idea, Charlie. Who thought of it?"

"Fifty bucks a head. They've got a bunch of these places in the Keys."

Joe Winder asked where Kingsbury had purchased the new dolphin.

"How should I know?" Chelsea snapped. "A dolphin's a dolphin, for Christ's sake. They don't come with a pedigree."

"This one needs a female," Winder said, "before you let tourists in the water."

"Thank you, Doctor Cousteau." The publicity man got up and closed the door. He looked gravely serious when he returned to the desk.

Joe Winder said, "I hope you're not going to make me write a press release about this. I've got more important things to do."

"Me, too." To steel himself, Charles Chelsea tightened his stomach muscles. "Joe, we're going to have to let you go."

"I see."

Chelsea studied his fingernails, trying not to make eye contact with Winder. "It's a combination of things."

"My attitude, I suppose."

"That's a factor, yes. I tried to give some latitude. The hair. The casual clothing."

Winder said, "Anything else?"

"I understand you broke into the vole lab."

"Would you like to hear what I found?"

"Not particularly," Chelsea said.

"A paper written about the blue-tongued mango voles. The one you sent to Will Koocher when you were recruiting him."

Chelsea gave Winder a so-what look. "That it?"

"Funny thing, Charlie. The person who supposedly wrote that paper, this Dr. Sarah Hunt? Rollins College never heard of her." Winder raised his palms in mock puzzlement. "Never on the faculty, never graduated, never even attended what do you make of that, Charlie?"

"Pedro told me of your ridiculous theory." Chelsea's lips barely moved when he spoke; he looked like a goldfish burping. "Dr. Koocher wasn't murdered, Joe, but in your twisted brain I'm sure you've made some connection between his unfortunate death and this...this typographical error."

Winder laughed. "A typo? You're beautiful, Charlie. The paper's a goddamn fake."

Chelsea rolled his eyes. "And I suppose a simpler explanation is impossible that perhaps the author's name was misspelled by the publisher, or that the university was misidentified..."

"No way."

"You're not a well person," Chelsea said. "And now I learn that you've telephoned Koocher's widow in New York. That's simply inexcusable." The way he spit out the word was meant to have a lacerating effect.

"What's inexcusable," said Winder, "is the way you lied."

"It was a judgment call." Chelsea's cheek twitched. "We were trying to spare the woman some grief."

"I told her to get a lawyer."

Chelsea's tan seemed to fade.

Joe Winder went on: "The newspapers are bound to find out the truth. 'Man Gobbled by Whale. Modern-Day Jonah Perishes in Freak Theme Park Mishap.' Think about it, Charlie."

"The coroner said he drowned. We've never denied it."

"But they didn't say how he drowned. Or why."

Charles Chelsea began to rock back and forth. "This is all academic, Joey. As of this moment, you no longer work here."

"And here I thought I was your ace in the hole."

Chelsea extended a hand, palm up. "The keys to the Cushman, please."

Winder obliged. He said, "Charlie, even though you're an obsequious dork, I'd like to believe you're not a part of this. I'd like to believe that you're just incredibly dim."

"Go clean out your desk."

"I don't have to. There's nothing in it."

Chelsea looked momentarily confused.

Winder waved his arms. "Desks are places to keep facts, Charlie. Who needs a desk when the words simply fly off the tops of our heads! Hell, I've done my finest work for you while sitting on the toilet."

"If you're trying to insult me, it won't work." Chelsea lowered his eyelids in lizardly disinterest. "We all fudge the truth when it suits our purposes, don't we? Like when you told me you got that scar in a car accident."

So he knew all along, just as Joe Winder had suspected.

"I heard it was a fight in the newsroom," Chelsea said, "a fistfight with one of your editors."

"He had it coming," said Winder. "He screwed up a perfectly good news story."

The story concerned Joe Winder's father bribing a county commissioner in exchange for a favorable vote on a zoning variance. Winder had written the story himself after digging through a stack of his father's canceled checks and finding five made out to the commissioner's favorite bagman.

Though admiring of Winder's resourcefulness, the editor had said it created an ethical dilemma; he decided that someone else would have to write the piece. You're too emotionally involved, the editor had told him.

So Winder had gotten a firm grip on the editor's head and rammed it through the screen of the word processor, cutting himself spectacularly in the struggle that followed.

"I'm sorry, Charlie," he said. "Maybe you shouldn't have hired me."

"The understatement of the year."

"Before I go, may I show you something?" He took out the small bottle that Skink had given him and placed it in the center of Chelsea's desk blotter.

The publicity man examined it and said, "It's food coloring, so what?"

"Look closer."

"Betty Crocker food coloring. What's the point, Joe?"

"And what color?"

"Blue." Chelsea was impatient. "The label says blue."

Winder twisted the cap off the bottle. He said, "I believe this came from the vole lab, too. You might ask Pedro about it."

Baffled, Charles Chelsea watched Joe Winder toss back his head and empty the contents of the bottle into his mouth. He sloshed the liquid from cheek to cheek, then swallowed.

"Ready?" Winder said. He stuck out his tongue, which now was the color of indigo dye.

"That's a very cute trick." Chelsea sounded nervous.

Joe Winder climbed onto the desk on his hands and knees. "The voles were phony, Charlie. Did you know that?" He extended his tongue two inches from Chelsea's nose, then sucked it back in. He said, "There's no such thing as a blue-tongued mango vole. Kingsbury faked the whole deal. Invented an entire species!"

"You're cracking up," Chelsea said thinly.

Winder grabbed him by the collar. "You fucker, did you know all along?"

"Get out, or I'm calling Security."

"That's why Will Koocher was killed. He'd figured out everything. He was going to rat, so to speak, on the upstanding Mr. Kingsbury."

Chelsea's upper lip was a constellation of tiny droplets. He tried to pull away. "Let me go, Joe. If you know what's good for you."

"They painted their tongues, Charlie. Think of it. They took these itty-bitty animals and dyed their tongues blue, all in the name of tourism."

Straining against Winder's grasp, Chelsea said, "You're talking crazy."

Joe Winder licked him across the face.

"Stop it!"

Winder slurped him again. "It's your color, Charlie. Very snappy."

His tongue waggled in mockery; Chelsea eyed the fat blue thing as if it were a poisonous slug.

"You can fire me," Winder announced, "but I won't go away."

He climbed off the desk, careful not to drop the bottle of food coloring. Chelsea swiftly began plucking tissues from a silver box and wiping his face, examining each crumpled remnant for traces of the dye. His fingers were shaking.

"I should have you arrested," he hissed.

"But you won't," Winder said. "Think of the headlines."

He was halfway to the door when Chelsea said, "Wait a minute, Joey. What is it you want?"

Winder kept walking, and began to laugh. He laughed all the way down the hall, a creepy melodic warble that made Charles Chelsea shudder and curse.


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