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NINETEEN

Charles Chelsea worked feverishly all morning. By half past eleven the parade was organized. The gateway to the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills was festooned with multicolored streamers and hundreds of Mylar balloons. Cheerleaders practiced cartwheels over the turnstiles while the Tavernier High School band rehearsed the theme from Exodus. Several of the most popular animal characters Robbie Raccoon, Petey Possum and Barney the Bison were summoned from desultory lunch breaks in The Catacombs to greet and be photographed with the big winner. Above a hastily constructed stage, a billowy hand-painted banner welcomed "OUR FIVE-MILLIONTH SPECIAL GUEST!!!"

And there, parked in the courtyard, was a newly restored 1966 Chevrolet Corvair, one of Detroit's most venerated deathtraps. Charles Chelsea had been unable to locate a mint-condition Falcon, and the vintage Mustangs were beyond Francis Kingsbury's budget. The Corvair was Chelsea's next choice as the giveaway car because it was a genuine curiosity, and because it was cheap. The one purchased by Chelsea had been rear-ended by a dairy tanker in 1972, and the resulting explosion had wiped out a quartet of home-appliance salesmen. The rebuilt Corvair was seven inches shorter from bumper to bumper than the day it had rolled off the assembly line, but Charles Chelsea was certain no one would notice. Two extra coats of cherry paint and the Corvair shouted classic. It was exactly the sort of campy junk-mobile that some dumb Yuppie would love.

The scene was set for the coronation of the alleged five-millionth visitor to the Amazing Kingdom. The only thing missing from the festive tableau, Chelsea noted lugubriously, was customers. "The park had opened more than two hours ago, yet not a single carload of tourists had arrived. The trams were empty, the cash registers mute; no one had passed through the ticket gates. Chelsea couldn't understand it the place had not experienced such a catastrophic attendance drop since salmonella had felled a visiting contingent of Rotarians at Sally's Cimarron Saloon.

Chelsea prayed with all his heart that some tourists would show up before the television vans. He did not know, and could not have envisioned, that an eighteen-wheeler loaded with the decomposing remains of Orky the Whale had flipped on Card Sound Road and paralyzed all traffic heading toward the Amazing Kingdom. The highway patrol diligently had set up a roadblock at the junction near Florida City, where troopers were advising all buses, campers and rental cars filled with Francis X. Kingsbury's customers to turn around and return to Miami. The beleaguered troopers did not consider it their sworn duty to educate the tourists about an alternate route to the Amazing Kingdom taking Highway 1 south past Jewfish Creek, then backtracking up County Road 905 to the park. The feeling among the troopers (based on years of experience) was that no matter how simple and explicit they made the directions, many of the tourists would manage to get lost, run out of gas and become the victims of some nasty roadside crime. A more sensible option was simply to tell them to go back, there'd been a bad accident.

Consequently Charles Chelsea stood in eery solitude on the makeshift stage, the cheery banner flapping over his head as he stared at the empty parking lot and wondered how in the hell he would break the news to Francis X. Kingsbury. Today there would be no celebration, no parade, no five-millionth visitor. There were no visitors at all.


Joe Winder felt like a damn redneck he hadn't been to a firing range in ten or twelve years, and that was to shoot his father's revolver, an old Smith. The gun Skink had given him was a thin foreign-made semi-automatic. It didn't have much weight, but Skink promised it would do the job, whatever job needed doing. Winder had decided to keep it for ornamental purposes. It lay under the front seat as he drove south on County Road 905.

He stopped at a pay phone, dialed the sex-talk number and billed it to his home. Miriam answered and started in with a new routine, something about riding bareback on a pony. When Winder broke in and asked for Nina, Miriam told him she wasn't there.

"Tell her to call me, please."

"Hokay, Joe."

"On second thought, never mind."

"Whatever chew say. You like the horsey business?"

"Yes, Miriam, it's very good."

"Nina wrote it. Want me do the end?"

"No thank you."

"Is hot stuff, Joe. Cheese got some mansionation."

"She sure does."

Joe Winder drove until he reached the Falcon Trace construction site. He parked on the side of the road and watched a pair of mustard-colored bulldozers plow a fresh section of hammock, creating a tangled knoll of uprooted tamarinds, buttonwoods, pigeon plums and rouge-berry. Each day a few more acres were being destroyed in the name of championship golf.

A team of surveyors worked the distant end of the property, near Winder's fishing spot. He assumed they were marking off the lots where the most expensive homes would be built the more ocean frontage, the higher the price. This was how Francis X. Kingsbury would make his money the golf course itself was never meant to profit; it was a real-estate tease, plain and simple. The links would be pieced together in the middle of the development on whatever parcels couldn't be peddled as residential waterfront. Soon, Winder knew, they'd start blasting with dynamite to dig fairway lakes in the ancient reef rock.

He saw that both bulldozers had stopped, and that the drivers had gotten down from the cabs to look at something in the trees. Joe Winder stepped out of the car and started running. He remembered what Skink had told him about the baby eagles. He shouted at the men and saw them turn. One folded his arms and slouched against his dozer.

Winder covered the two hundred yards in a minute. When he reached the men, he was panting too hard to speak.

One of them said: "What's your problem?"

Winder flashed his Amazing Kingdom identification badge, which he had purposely neglected to turn in upon termination of employment. The lazy bulldozer driver, the one leaning against his machine, studied the badge and began to laugh. "What the hell is this?"

When Joe Winder caught his breath, he said: "I work for Mr. Kingsbury. He owns this land."

"Ain't the name on the permit. The permit says Ramex Global."

The other driver spoke up: "Anyway, who gives a shit about some goddamn wolves?"

"Yeah," the first driver said. "Bury 'em."

"No," said Joe Winder. They weren't wolves, they were gray foxes six of them, no larger than kittens. The bulldozers had uprooted the den tree. Half-blind, the little ones were crawling all over each other, squeaking and yapping in toothless panic.

Winder said, "If we leave them alone, the mother will probably come back."

"What is this, 'Wild Kingdom'?"

"At least help me move them out of the way."

"Forget it," the smartass driver said. "I ain't in the mood for rabies. Come on, Bobby, let's roll it."

The men climbed back in the dozers and seized the gear sticks. Instinctively Joe Winder positioned himself between the large machines and the baby foxes. The drivers began to holler and curse. The smartass lowered the blade of his bulldozer and inched forward, pushing a ridge of moist dirt over the tops of Joe Winder's shoes. The driver grinned and whooped at his own cleverness until he noticed the gun pointed up at his head.

He quickly turned off the engine and raised his hands. The other driver did the same. In a scratchy whine he said, "Geez, what's your problem?"

Winder held the semi-automatic steady. He was surprised at how natural it felt. He said, "Is this what it takes to have a civilized conversation with you shit-heads?"

Quickly he checked over his shoulder to make sure the kits hadn't crawled from the den. The outlandish-ness of the situation was apparent, but he'd committed himself to melodrama. With the gun on display, he was already deep into felony territory.

The smartass driver apologized profusely for burying Winder's shoes. "I'll buy you some new ones," he offered.

"Oh, that's not necessary." Winder yearned to shoot the bulldozers but he didn't know where to begin; the heavy steel thoraxes looked impervious to cannon fire.

The lazy driver said: "You want us to get down?"

"Not just yet," said Joe Winder, "I'm thinking."

"Hey, there's no need to shoot. Just tell us what the hell you want."

"I want you to help me fuck up these machines."


It was nine o'clock when the knock came. Joe Winder was sitting in the dark on the floor of the apartment. He had the clip out of the gun, and the bullets out of the clip. A full load, too, sixteen rounds; he had lined up the little rascals side by side on a windowsill, a neat row of identical copper-headed soldiers.

The knocking wouldn't go away. Winder picked up the empty gun. He went to the door and peeked out of the peephole. He saw an orb of glistening blond; not Nina-style blond, this was lighter. When the woman turned around, Winder flung open the door and pulled her inside.

In the darkness Carrie Lanier took a deep breath and said: "I hope that's you."

"It's me," Joe Winder said.

"Was that a gun I saw?"

"I'm afraid so. My situation has taken a turn for the worse."

Carrie said, "That's why I came."

Winder led her back to the living room, where they sat between two large cardboard boxes. The only light was the amber glow from the stereo receiver; Carrie Lanier could barely hear the music from the speakers.

"Where's your girlfriend?" she asked.

"Moved out."

"I'm sorry." She paused; then, peering at him: "Is that a beret?"

"Panties," Joe Winder said. "Can you believe it that's all she left me. Cheap ones, too. The mail-order crap she sold over the phone." He pulled the underwear off his head to show her the shoddy stitching.

"You've had a rough time," said Carrie Lanier. "I didn't know she'd moved out."

"Yeah, well, I'm doing just fine. Adjusting beautifully to the single life. Sitting here in a dark apartment with a gun in my lap and underpants on my head."

Carrie squeezed his arm. "Joe, are you on drugs?"

"Nope," he said. "Pretty amazing, isn't it?"

"I think you should come home with me."

"Why?"

"Because bad things will happen if you stay here."

"Ah." Winder scooped the bullets off the windowsill and fed them into the gun clip. "You must be talking about Pedro Luz."

"It's all over the Magic Kingdom," Carrie said, "about the reasons you were fired."

"Mr. X doesn't kill his former employees, does he?"

She leaned closer. "It's no joke. The word is, you're number one on Pedro's list."

"So that's the word."

"Joe, I get around. Spend the day in a raccoon suit, people forget there's a real person inside. I might as well be invisible the stuff I pick up, you wouldn't believe."

The spy wore a tail! "And now you hear Pedro's irritated."

"I got it from two of the other guards on lunch break. They were doing blow behind the Magic Mansion."

Winder was struck by how wonderful Carrie looked, her eyes all serious in the amber light. Impulsively he kissed her on the cheek. "Don't worry about me," he said. "You can go home."

"You aren't listening."

"Yes, I "

"No, you aren't." Her tone was one of motherly disapproval. "I warned you about this before. About sticking your nose where it doesn't belong."

"You did, yes."

"Last time you were lucky. You truly were."

"I suppose so." Joe Winder felt oppressively tired. Suddenly the handgun weighed a ton. He slid it across the carpet so forcefully that it banged into the baseboard of the opposite wall.

Carrie Lanier told him to hurry and pack some clothes.

"I can't leave," he said. "Nina might call."

"Joe, it's not just Pedro you've got to worry about. It's the police."

Winder's chin dropped to his chest. "Already?"

"Mr. X swore out a warrant this afternoon," Carrie said. "I heard it from his secretary."

Francis Kingsbury's secretary was a regular visitor to The Catacombs, where she was conducting an athletic love affair with the actor who portrayed Bartholomew, the most shy and bookish of Uncle Ely's Elves.

Carrie said, "She mentioned something about destruction of private property."

"There was an incident," Joe Winder acknowledged, "but no shots were fired."

Under his supervision, the two bulldozers had torn down the three-dimensional billboard that proclaimed the future home of the Falcon Trace Golf and Country Club. The bulldozers also had demolished the air-conditioned double-wide trailer (complete with beer cooler and billiard table) that served as an on-site office for the construction company. They had even wrecked the Port-O-Lets, trapping one of the foremen with his anniversary issue of Hustler magazine.

Afterwards Joe Winder had encouraged the bulldozer operators to remove their clothing, which he'd wadded in the neck of the gas tanks. Then after borrowing the smartass driver's cigarette lighter Joe Winder had suggested that the men aim their powerful machines toward the Atlantic Ocean, engage the forward gear and swiftly exit the cabs. Later he had proposed a friendly wager on which of the dozers would blow first.

"They spotted the flames all the way from Homestead Air Base," Carrie Lanier reported. "Channel 7 showed up in a helicopter, so Kingsbury made Chelsea write up a press release."

"A freak construction accident, no doubt."

"Good guess. I've got a Xerox in my purse."

"No thanks." Joe Winder wasn't in the mood for Chelsea's golden lies. He stood up and stretched; joints and sockets popped in protest. Lights began to flash blue, green and red on the bare wall, and Winder assumed it was fatigue playing tricks with his vision.

He squinted strenuously, and the lights disappeared. When he opened his eyes, the lights were still strobing. "Shit, here we go." Winder went to the window and peeked through the curtain.

"How many?" Carrie asked.

"Two cops, one car."

"Is there another way out?"

"Sure," he said.

They heard the tired footsteps on the front walk, the deep murmur of conversation, the crinkle of paper. In the crack beneath the door they saw the yellow flicker of flashlight as the policemen examined the warrant one more time, probably double-checking the address.

Winder picked up the semi-automatic and arranged it in his waistband. Carrie Lanier followed him to the kitchen, where they slipped out the back door just as the cops got serious with their knocking. Once outside, in the pale blue moonlight, she deftly grabbed the gun from Joe Winder's trousers and put it in her handbag.

"In case you go stupid on me," she whispered.

"No chance of that," he said. "None at all."


EIGHTEEN | NativeTongue | TWENTY