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As soon as Charles Chelsea got back to the Publicity Department, he took a poll of the secretaries. "How was I?" he asked. "How'd I do? What about the necktie?"

The secretaries told Chelsea that he looked terrific on television, that loosening the necktie was a nifty touch, that overall it was quite a solid performance. Chelsea asked if Mr. Kingsbury had called, but the secretaries said he hadn't.

"Wonder why not," said Chelsea.

"He's playing golf up at Ocean Reef."

"Yeah, but he's got a cellular. He could've called." Chelsea told one of the secretaries to get Joe Winder, and then went into his private office and closed the door.

Ten minutes later, when Joe Winder got there, Charles Chelsea was watching himself on the VCR, reliving the press conference.

"Whadja think?" he asked, motioning at the television screen in the cabinet.

"I missed it," said Joe Winder.

"You missed it? It was your bloody speech how'd you miss it?"

"I heard you were dynamite."

Charles Chelsea broke into a grin. "Yeah? Who said?"

"Everybody," lied Joe Winder. "They said you're another Mario Cuomo."

"Well, your speech had something to do with it."

It wasn't a speech, Winder thought; it was a statement. Forty lines, big deal.

"It was a great speech, Joe," Chelsea went on, "except for one part. Specially climatized habitat. That's a mouthful. Maybe we should've tried something else." With pursed lips he repeated the culprit phrase: "Climatized habitat when I was trying to say it, I accidentally spit on that girl from Channel 10. The cute one. Next time be more careful, okay? Don't sneak in any zingers without me knowing."

Joe Winder said, "I was in a hurry." The backs of his eyeballs were starting to throb. Sinus headache: Chelsea always gave him one. But Winder had to admit, the guy looked like a million bucks in an oxford shirt. He looked like a vice president in charge of public relations, which he was.

Chelsea was saying, "I don't even know what it means, climatized habitat."

"That's the beauty of it," Winder said.

"Now, now." Chelsea wagged a well-tanned finger. "None of that, Joey. There's no place for cynics here at the Amazing Kingdom. You know what Kingsbury says."

"Yeah. We're all little kids." Winder kneaded his skull with both hands, trying to squeeze out the pain.

"Children," Charles Chelsea said. He turned off the VCR and spun his chair to face Joe Winder. "The moment we walk through that gate, we're all children. We see the world through children's eyes; we cry children's tears, we laugh children's laughter. We're all innocent again, Joe, and where there's innocence there can't be cynicism. Not here in the Amazing Kingdom."

Joe Winder said, "You're giving me a fucking headache. I hope you're happy."

Charles Chelsea's blue eyes narrowed and darkened. "Look, we hired you because you're good and you're fast. But this isn't a big-city newsroom, you can't use that type of coarse language. Children don't talk like that, Joe. That's gutter language."

"Sorry," said Winder, concealing his amusement. Gutter language, that was a good one.

"When's the last time you heard a child say that word?"

"Which word, Charlie?"

"You know. The "F word."

"I've heard children say it. Plenty of times."

"Not here, you haven't." Charles Chelsea sat up straight, trying to radiate authority. "This is a major event for us, Joey. We've had a robbery on the premises. Felons invaded the theme park. Somebody could've been hurt."

"Rat-nappers," Winder remarked. "Not exactly Ted Bundy."

"Hey," Chelsea said, tapping a lacquered fingernail on the desk. "Hey, this is serious. Mr. X is watching very closely to see how we do. All of us, Joe, all of us in Publicity are on red alert until this thing blows over. We mishandle it, and it blows up into a story about crime at the Amazing Kingdom. If we can spin it around, it's a story about a crime against Nature. Nature with a capital "N." The annihilation of an entire species. Where's your notebook?"

"Downstairs, on my desk."

"Listen, you're my ace in the hole. Whatever gets dumped in my lap gets dumped in yours."

Joe Winder's sinuses hurt so much he thought his eyeballs must be leaking from the inside. He didn't want to be Chelsea's ace in the hole.

Chelsea said, "And, Joe, while we're at it, what'd I tell you about the hair? No braids."

"But it's all the rage," Winder said.

"Get it cut before Kingsbury sees you. Please, Joe, you look like a Navajo nightmare."

"Nice talk, Charlie."

"Sit down," said Chelsea, "and put on your writing cap."

"I'd love to look as spiffy as you, but you bought up all the oxford shirts in Miami. Either that or you wear the same one every day."

Chelsea wasn't listening. "Before we begin, there's some stuff you need to know."

"Like what?"

"Like their names."

"Whose names?"

"The voles," Charles Chelsea said. "Vance and Violet two helpless, adorable, fuzzy little furballs. Mated for life. The last of their species, Joey."

With a straight face, Winder repeated the names of the missing creatures. "Vance and Violet Vole. That's lovely." He glanced at his wristwatch, and saw that it was half past five. "Charlie," he said, "you don't happen to have any Darvons?"

Chelsea said, "I wish you were writing this stuff down."

"What the hell for?"

"For the story. The story of how Francis X. Kingsbury tried everything in his power to save the blue-tongued mango voles from extinction."

"Only to be thwarted by robbers?"

"You got it," said Charles Chelsea. "Stay late if necessary and take a comp day next week I need a thousand words by tomorrow morning. I promised Corporate a press kit." He stood up and waited for Joe Winder to do the same. "Get with Koocher for more background on the missing animals. He's got reams of pictures, too, in case you need inspiration. By the way, did you ever get to see them?"

Winder felt oddly detached. "The voles? No, not in person," he said. "I wasn't even aware they had actual names."

"They do now."

At the door, Charles Chelsea winked and shook Joe Winder's hand. "You know, Joe, some people in the organization weren't too thrilled when we brought you aboard. I mean, after what happened up at Disney."

Winder nodded politely. Chelsea's hand felt moist and lifeless, like a slab of cold grouper.

"But, by God, I knew you'd be fine. That speech today was masterful, Joey, a classic."

"A classic."

"I need you on this one. The other kids are fine, they can turn a phrase. But they're right out of school, most of them, and they're not ready for something so big. For this I need somebody with scars. Combat experience."

With effort, Joe Winder said, "Guess I'm your man."

Charles Chelsea chucked him on the arm and opened the door.

"What about a reward?" Winder asked. "In the press release, should I say we're offering a reward?"

Thinking about it, Chelsea nearly rubbed the tan off his chin. "I guess it couldn't hurt," he said finally. "What do you think?"

"For two rats? Ten grand is good."

"Voles, Joe. Don't ever say rats. And five grand is plenty."

Winder shrugged. "The park netted forty-two million dollars last year. I know a few reporters who'd be happy to remind us."

"All right, go for ten," said Charles Chelsea. "But don't overplay it. Otherwise every geek in Miami is going to show up at the gate with shoe boxes full of God knows what."

The thought of it made Joe Winder smile for the first time all day.

One of the few things Winder liked about his new job was the golf cart he got to drive around the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. It was a souped-up Cushman with an extra set of twelve-volts, and headlights scavenged off a real Jeep. It was the closest thing to a company car that Joe Winder had ever had, and sometimes (especially on that long downhill stretch between Magic Mansion and the Wet Willy) he could stomp on the tiny accelerator and forget what exactly he did for a living. At night Joe Winder tried to drive more carefully, because it was harder to watch out for the tourists. The tourists at the Amazing Kingdom seldom paid attention to where they were going; they wandered and weaved, peered and pointed. And who could blame them? There were so many colorful and entertaining distractions. Before Charles Chelsea had given Joe Winder the keys to the Cushman, he had warned him to be wary when driving near the tourists. "Whatever you do, don't hit one," Chelsea had said. "If you're going to crash, aim for a building," he had advised, "or even a park employee. Anything but a paying customer."

So Joe Winder drove with extra caution in the golf cart at night. He arrived at the Rare Animal Pavilion shortly after eight, and parked in the back. Dr. Will Koocher, the vole man, was waiting inside with handouts and glossy photographs. Winder sat on a lab stool and skimmed the material.

Koocher said, "We kept the information fairly general. They tell me the pictures usually go over big."

As Winder studied the photographs, he said, "Cute little buggers."

"They're just rodents," the doctor noted, without malice.

"You don't understand," Winder said, "Cuteness is vital for a story like this." He explained how newspapers and television stations got much more excited about animal stories when the animal came across as cuddly and lovable. "I'm not saying it's good or bad, but that's the way it is."

Will Koocher nodded. "Like with the manatees everybody wants to save the manatees, but nobody gives a hoot about the poor crocodiles."

"Because they're not particularly cute," Winder said. "Who wants to hug a reptile?"

"I see your point." Will Koocher was a gaunt young man with the longest neck that Joe Winder had ever seen. He seemed painfully earnest and shy, and Winder liked him immediately.

"I'll tell you what I can," Koocher said, "but I've only been here a month."

Like everything else at the Amazing Kingdom, the Vole Project had begun as a scheme to compete with Walt Disney World. Years earlier, Disney had tried to save the dusky seaside sparrow, a small marsh bird whose habitat was being wiped out by overdevelopment along Florida's coastline. With much fanfare, Disney had unveiled a captive-breeding program for the last two surviving specimens of the dusky. Unfortunately, the last two surviving specimens were both males, and even the wizards of Disney could not induce the scientific miracle of homosexual procreation. Eventually the sparrow fell to extinction, but the Disney organization won gobs of fawning publicity for its conservation efforts.

Not to be outdone (although he invariably was), Francis X. Kingsbury had selected another endangered species and commanded that his staff save it, ASAP. And so the Vole Project was born.

Koocher had gotten the phone call while finishing his thesis at Cornell. "I'd published two field studies on the genus Microtus, so I suppose that's where they got my name. Anyway, this guy Chelsea calls and asks if I'd heard of Microtus mango, and I said no, all my work was on the northern species. He sent me a scientific paper that had been published, and offered me a job. Forty grand a year."

"That's good money right out of school."

"Tell me about it. I burned up the interstate getting down here."

"And that's when you met Violet and Vance."

"Who's that?"

"The voles," Winder said. "They've got names now."

"Really?" Will Koocher looked doubtful. "I always called them Male One and Female One."

"Not anymore. Kingsbury's got big plans, PR-wise. The little mango curies are going to be famous don't be surprised if the networks show up tomorrow."

"Is that so," Koocher said, with not the wildest enthusiasm. Winder sensed that the scientist disapproved of anthropomorphizing rodents, so he decided to lay off the Vance-and-Violet routine. Instead he asked about the tongue.

"Well, it really is blue," Koocher said stiffly. "Remarkably blue."

"Could I say indigo?" Joe Winder was taking notes.

"Yeah," said Koocher, "that's about right." He started to say something more, but caught himself.

Joe Winder asked: "So what killed off the rest of them? Was it disease?"

"No, same old story. The encroachment of mankind." Koocher unfolded a map that illustrated how the mango vole had once ranged from the Middle Keys up to Palm Beach. As the coastline surrendered to hotels, subdivisions and condominiums, the voles" territory shrank. "They tell me the last known colony was here, on North Key Largo. One of Kingsbury's foremen found it in 1988, but so did a hungry barn owl. They were lucky to save the two that they did."

"And they mated for life?" said Winder.

Koocher seemed amused. "Who told you that?"


"That figures. Voles don't mate for life. They mate for fun, and they mate with just about anything that resembles another vole."

Winder said, "Then here's another dumb question: Why were there only two in our exhibit? They'd been together, what, a year? So where're all the bouncing baby voles?"

Edgily, Koocher said, "That's been our biggest disappointment."

"I did some reading up on it," Winder said. "With your typical Microtus, the female gives birth every two months. Each litter's got eight or nine babies at that rate, you could replenish the whole species in a year."

Will Koocher shifted uncomfortably. "Female One was not receptive," he said. "Do you understand what that means?"

"Do I ever."

"This was an extreme case. The female nearly killed the male on several occasions. We had to hire a Wackenhut to watch the cage."

"A guard?" said Joe Winder.

"To make sure she didn't hurt him."

Winder swallowed a laugh. Apparently, Koocher saw no humor in the story. He said, "I felt sorry for the little guy. The female was much larger, and extremely hostile. Every time the male would attempt to mount her, she would attack."

Joe Winder put his notebook away. He'd think of a way to write around the reproduction question.

Koocher said: "The female vole wasn't quite right."

"In what way?"

But Koocher was staring past him. Winder turned and saw Charles Chelsea on the other side of the glass door. Chelsea gave a chipper, three-fingered salute and disappeared.

The doctor said, "Now's not a terrific time to get into all this. Can we talk later?"

"You bet. I'll be in the publicity office."

"No, not here. Can I call you at home in a day or two?"

Winder said sure. "But I've got to write the press release tonight. If there's something I ought to know, please tell me before I make an ass of myself."

Koocher stood up and smoothed the breast of his lab coat. "That business about the networks coming were you serious?"

"Cute sells," Winder said. "You take an offbeat animal story on a slow news day, we're talking front page."

"Christ." Koocher sighed.

"Hey, I'm sorry," Winder said. He hadn't meant to come off as such a coldhearted prick. "I know what these little critters meant to you."

Will Koocher smiled ruefully. He folded the habitat map and put it away. He looked tired and sad, and Winder felt bad for him. "It's all right," the young scientist said. "They were doomed, no matter what."

"We're all doomed," said Joe Winder, "if you really think about it." Which he tried not to.

Bud Schwartz parked the pickup truck under an immense ficus tree. He told Danny Pogue not to open the doors right away, because of all the mosquitoes. The insects had descended in a sibilant cloud, bouncing off the windows and the hood and the headlights.

"I bet we don't have no bug spray," said Danny Pogue.

Bud Schwartz pointed at the house. "On the count of three, make a run for it."

Danny Pogue remarked that the old place was dark. "She saving on the electricity, or what? I bet she's not even home. I bet she was hoping we got caught, so she wouldn't have to pay us."

"You got no faith," said Bud Schwartz. "You're the most negative fucking person I ever met. That's why your skin's broke out all the time all those negative thoughts is like a poison in your bloodstream."

"Wait a minute, now. Everybody gets pimples."

Bud Schwartz said, "You're thirty-one years old. Tell me that's normal."

"Do we got bug spray or not?"

"No." Bud Schwartz unlocked his door. "Now let's go one, two, three!"

They burst out of the pickup and bolted for the house, flailing at mosquitoes as they ran. When they got inside the screened porch, the two men took turns swatting the insects off each other. A light came on, and Molly McNamara poked out of the door. Her white hair was up in curlers, her cheeks were slathered in oily yellow cream and her broad, pointy-shouldered frame was draped in a blue terry-cloth bathrobe.

"Get inside," she said to the two men.

Immediately Bud Schwartz noticed how grim the woman looked. The curlers, cream and bathrobe didn't help.

The house was all mustiness and shadows, made darker and damper by the ubiquitous wood paneling. The living room smelled of jasmine, or some other old-woman scent. It reminded Bud Schwartz of his grandmother's sewing room.

Molly McNamara sat down in a rocker. Bud Schwartz and Danny Pogue just stood there like the hired help they were.

"Where are they?" Molly demanded. "Where's the box?"

Danny Pogue looked at Bud Schwartz, who said, "They got away."

Molly folded her hands across her lap. She said, "You're lying to me."

"No, ma'am."

"Then tell me what happened."

Before Bud Schwartz could stop him, Danny Pogue said, "There was holes in the box. That's how they got out."

Molly McNamara's right hand slipped beneath her bathrobe and came out holding a small black pistol. Without saying a word she shot Danny Pogue twice in the left foot. He fell down, screaming, on the smooth pine floor. Bud Schwartz couldn't believe it; he tried to speak, but there was no air in his lungs.

"You boys are lying," Molly said. She got up from the rocker and left the room. She came back with a towel, chipped ice, bandages and a roll of medical adhesive tape. She told Bud Schwartz to patch up his partner before the blood got all over everything. Bud Schwartz knelt on the floor next to Danny Pogue and tried to calm him. Molly sat down and started rocking.

"The towel is for his mouth," she said, "so I don't have to listen to all that yammering."

And it was true, Danny Pogue's wailing was unbearable, even allowing for the pain. It reminded Bud Schwartz of the way his first wife had sounded during the thrashings of childbirth.

Molly said, "It's been all over the news, so at least I know that you went ahead and did it. I suppose I'm obliged to pay up."

Bud Schwartz was greatly relieved; she wouldn't pay somebody she was about to kill. The thought of being murdered by a seventy-year-old woman in pink curlers was harrowing on many levels.

"Tell me if I'm wrong," Molly said. "Curiosity got the best of you, right? You opened the box, the animals escaped."

"That's about the size of it," said Bud Schwartz, wrapping a bandage around Danny Pogue's foot. He had removed the sneaker and the sock, and examined the wounds. Miraculously (or maybe by design) both bullets had missed the bones, so Danny Pogue was able to wiggle all his toes. When he stopped whimpering, Bud Schwartz removed the towel from his mouth.

"So you think they're still alive," Molly said.

"Why not? Who'd be mean enough to hurt 'em?"

"This is important," said Molly. The pistol lay loose on her lap, looking as harmless as a macrame.

Danny Pogue said, "We didn't kill them things, I swear to God. They just scooted out of the damn truck."

"They're awful fast," added Bud Schwartz.

"Oh, please," said Molly McNamara, shaking her head. Even Danny Pogue picked up on the sarcasm.

"We didn't know there was only two," he said. "We thought there must be a whole bunch in a box that size. That's how come we wasn't so worried when they got away see, we thought there was more."

Molly started rocking a little faster. The rocking chair didn't squeak a bit on the varnished pine. She said, "I'm very disappointed in the both of you."

Bud Schwartz helped his partner limp to an ottoman.

All he wanted was to get the money and get the hell out of this spooky old house, away from this crazy witch.

"Here's the really bad news," said Molly McNamara. "It's your truck only about a thousand people saw you drive away. Now, I don't know if they got the license tag, but they sure as hell got a good description. It's all over the TV."

"Shit," said Bud Schwartz.

"So you're going to have to keep a low profile for a while."

Still breathing heavily, Danny Pogue said, "What's that mean?"

Molly stopped rocking and sat forward. "For starters, say goodbye to the pickup truck. Also, you can forget about going home. If the police got your tag, they'll be waiting."

"I'll take my chances," said Bud Schwartz.

"No, you won't," said Molly. "I'll give you a thousand dollars each. You'll get the rest in two weeks, if things die down. Meanwhile, I've arranged a place for you boys to stay."

"Here?" asked Danny Pogue in a fretful, pain-racked voice.

"No, not here," Molly said. "Not on your life."

She stood up from the rocker. The pistol disappeared again into a fuzzy pocket of the blue robe. "Your foot's going to be fine," she announced to Danny Pogue. "I hope I made my point."

The bafflement on the two men's faces suggested otherwise.

Molly McNamara said, "I chose you for a reason."

"Come on," said Bud Schwartz, "we're just burglars."

"And don't you ever forget it," Molly said.

Danny Pogue couldn't believe she was talking to them this way. He couldn't believe he was being terrorized by an old lady in a rocking chair.

"There's something else you should know," said Molly McNamara. "There are others."

Momentarily Bud Schwartz's mind had stuck on that thousand dollars she'd mentioned. He had been thinking: Screw the other nine, just grab the grand and get lost. Now she was saying something about others what others?

"Anything happens to me," Molly said, "there's others that know who you are. Where you live. Where you hang out. Everything."

"I don't get it," muttered Danny Pogue.

"Burglars get shot sometimes," Molly McNamara said. "Nobody says boo about it, either. Nobody gets arrested or investigated or anything else. In this country, you kill a burglar and the Kiwanis gives you a plaque. That's the point I was trying to make."

Danny Pogue turned to Bud Schwartz, who was staring down at his partner's swollen foot and wondering if it was too late to make a run for it. Finally he said, "Lady, we're very sorry about your animals."

"They're not my animals," said Molly, "any more than you are."

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