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TWENTY-ONE

Carrie Lanier's place was furnished as exquisitely as any mobile home. It had a microwave, an electric can opener, a stove, a nineteen-inch color TV, two paddle fans and a Naugahyde convertible sofa where Joe Winder slept. But there was no music, so on his third day as a fugitive Winder borrowed Carrie's car and went back to the apartment to retrieve his stereo system and rock tapes. He was not totally surprised to find that his place had been broken, entered and ransacked; judging by the viciousness of the search, Pedro Luz was the likely intruder. The inventory of losses included the portable television, three champagne glasses, a tape recorder, the plumbing fixtures, the mattress, a small Matisse print and the toaster. One of Nina's pink bras, which she had forgotten, had been desecrated ominously with cigarette burns, and hung from a Tiffany lamp. Also, the freshwater aquarium had been shattered, and the twin Siamese fighting fish had been killed. It appeared to Joe Winder that their heads were pinched off.

The stereo tuner and tape deck escaped harm, though the turntable was in pieces. A pair of hedge clippers protruded from one of the speakers; the other, fortunately, was undamaged.

"It's better than nothing," Joe Winder said when he got back to the trailer. "Low fidelity is better than no fidelity."

While he reassembled the components, Carrie Lanier explored the box of cassettes. Every now and then she would smile or go "Hmmm" in an amused tone.

Finally Winder looked up from the nest of colored wires and said, "You don't like my music?"

"I like it just fine," she said. "I'm learning a lot about you. We've got The Kinks. Seeger live at Cobo Hall. Mick and the boys."

"Living in the past, I know."

"Oh, baloney." She began to stack the tapes alphabetically on a shelf made from raw plywood and cinder blocks.

"Do you have a typewriter?" he asked.

"In the closet," Carrie said. "Are you going to start writing again?"

"I wouldn't call it writing."

She got out the typewriter, an old Olivetti manual, and made a place for it on the dinette. "This is a good idea," she said to Joe Winder. "You'll feel much better. No more shooting at heavy machinery."

He reminded her that he hadn't actually pulled the trigger on the bulldozers. Then he said, "I stopped writing a long time ago. Stopped being a journalist, anyway."

"But you didn't burn out, you sold out."

"Thanks," Winder said, "for the reminder."

It was his fault for staggering down memory lane in the first place. Two nights earlier, Carrie had quizzed him about the newspaper business, wanted to know what kind of stories he'd written. So he'd told her about the ones that had stuck with him. The murder trial of a thirteen-year-old boy who'd shot his little sister because she had borrowed his Aerosmith album without asking. The marijuana-smuggling ring led by a fugitive former justice of the Florida Supreme Court. The bribery scandal in which dim-witted Dade County building inspectors were caught soliciting Lotto tickets as payoffs. The construction of a $47 million superhighway by a Mafia contractor whose formula for high-grade asphalt included human body parts.

Joe Winder did not mention the story that had ended his career. He offered nothing about his father. When Carrie Lanier had asked why he'd left the newspaper for public relations, he simply said, "Because of the money." She had seemed only mildly interested in his short time as a Disney World flack, but was impressed by the reckless sexual behavior that had gotten him fired. She said it was a healthy sign that he had not become a corporate drone, that the spark of rebellion still glowed in his soul. "Maybe in my pants," Winder said, "not in my soul."

Carrie repeated what she had told him the first night: "You could always go back to being a reporter."

"No, I'm afraid not."

"So what is it you want to type love letters? Maybe a confession?" Mischievously she tapped the keys of the Olivetti; two at a time, as if she were playing "Chopsticks."

The trailer was getting smaller and smaller. Joe Winder felt the heat lick at his eardrums. He said, "There's a reason you've hidden that gun."

"Because it's not your style." Carrie slapped the carriage and made the typewriter ring. "God gave you a talent for expression, a gift with the language."

Winder moaned desolately. "Have you ever read a single word I've written?"

"No," she admitted.

"So my alleged talent for expression, this gift "

"I'm giving you the benefit of the doubt," she said. The fact is, I don't trust you with a firearm. Now come help me open the wine."


Every evening at nine sharp, visitors to the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills gathered on both sides of Kingsbury Lane, the park's main thoroughfare, to buy overpriced junk food and await the rollicking pageant that was the climax of the day's festivities. All the characters in the Kingdom were expected to participate, from the gunslingers to the porpoise trainers to the elves. Sometimes a real marching band would accompany the procession, but in the slow months of summer the music was usually canned, piped in through the garbage chutes. Ten brightly colored floats comprised the heart of the parade, although mechanical problems frequently reduced the number of entries by half. These were organized in a story line based loosely on the settlement of Florida, going back to the days of the Spaniards. The plundering, genocide, defoliation and gang rape that typified the peninsula's past had been toned down for the sake of Francis X. Kingsbury's younger, more impressionable customers; also, it would have been difficult to find a musical score suitable to accompany a mass disemboweling of French Huguenots.

For the feel-good purposes of the Amazing Kingdom's nightly pageant, the sordid history of Florida was compressed into a series of amiable and bloodless encounters. Floats celebrated such fabricated milestones as the first beachfront Thanksgiving, when friendly settlers and gentle Tequesta Indians shared wild turkey and fresh coconut milk under the palms. It was a testament to Charles Chelsea's imagination (and mortal fear of Kingsbury) that even the most shameful episodes were reinterpreted with a positive commercial spin. A float titled "Migrants on a Mission" depicted a dozen cheery, healthful farm workers singing Jamaican folk songs and swinging their machetes in a precisely choreographed break-dance through the cane fields. Tourists loved it. So did the Okeechobee Sugar Federation, which had bankrolled the production in order to improve its image.

One of the highlights of the pageant was the arrival of "the legendary Seminole maiden" known as Princess Golden Sun. No such woman and no such lore ever existed; Charles Chelsea had invented her basically as an excuse to show tits and ass, and pass it off as ethnic culture. Traditional Seminole garb was deemed too dowdy for the parade, so Princess Golden Sun appeared in a micro-bikini made of simulated deerskin. The authentic Green Corn Dance, a sacred Seminole rite, was politely discarded as too solemn and repetitious; instead Golden Sun danced the lambada, a pelvic-intensive Latin step. Surrounded by ersatz Indian warriors wearing bright Brazilian slingshots, the princess proclaimed in song and mime her passionate love for the famous Seminole chieftain Osceola. At the news of his death, she broke into tears and vowed to haunt the Everglades forever in search of his spirit. The peak of the drama, and the parade, was the moment when Golden Sun mounted a wild panther (in this case, a heavily drugged African lioness) and disappeared from sight in a rising fog of dry ice.

It was the role most coveted among the female actors employed at the Amazing Kingdom, and for six months it had belonged to Annette Fury, a dancer of mountainous dimensions whose previous job was as a waitress at a topless doughnut shop in Fort Lauderdale. A competent singer, Miss Fury had done so well with the role of Princess Golden Sun that the newspaper in Key Largo had done a nice write-up, including a photograph of Miss Fury straddling the bleary-eyed cat. The reporter had been careful to explain that the spavined animal was not actually a Florida panther, since real panthers were all but extinct. Given Princess Golden Sun's appearance, it was doubtful that a single reader even noticed the lion in the picture. Miss Fury's pose head flung back, eyes closed, tongue between the teeth was suggestive enough to provoke indignant outcries from a fundamentalist church in Big Pine Key, as well as the entire Seminole Nation, or what was left of it. At the first whiff of controversy, Charles Chelsea swiftly purchased the negatives from the newspaper and converted the most provocative one to a color postcard, which went on sale for $1.95 in all gift shops in the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. As far as Chelsea was concerned, a star had been born.

On the night of July 25, however, Annette Fury's stint as Princess Golden Sun ended abruptly in a scandal that defied even Chelsea's talents for cosmetic counter-publicity. Shortly before the pageant, the dancer had ingested what were probably the last three Quaalude tablets in the entire continental United States. She had scrounged the dusty pills from the stale linty recesses of her purse, and washed them down with a warm bottle of Squirt. They had kicked in just as the float made the wide horseshoe turn onto Kingsbury Lane. By the time it rolled past the Cimarron Saloon, Annette Fury was bottomless, having surrendered her deerskin costume to a retired postal worker who had brought his wife and family all the way from Providence, Rhode Island. By the time the float reached the Wet Willy, the stone-faced Indian entourage of Princess Golden Sun had been augmented by nine rowdy Florida State fraternity men, who were taking turns balancing the drowsy young maiden on their noses, or so it must have appeared to the children in the audience. Afterwards, several parents threatened to file criminal obscenity charges against the park. They were appeased by a prompt written apology signed by Francis X. Kingsbury, and a gift of laminated lifetime passes to the Amazing Kingdom. Reluctantly, Charles Chelsea advised the Talent Manager to inform Annette Fury that her services were no longer required. The following day, Carrie Lanier was told that the role of Princess Golden Sun was hers if she wanted it. This was after they'd asked for her measurements.

So tonight she'd splurged on a bottle of Mondavi.

"To the late Robbie Raccoon," Carrie said, raising her glass.

"No one did him better," said Joe Winder.

He put on a tape of Dire Straits and they both agreed that it sounded pretty darn good, even with only one speaker. The wine was tolerable, as well.

Carrie said, "I told them I want a new costume."

"Something in beads and grass would be authentic."

"Also, no lip-synching," she said. "I don't care if the music's canned, but I want to do my own singing."

"What about the lion?" Joe Winder asked.

"They swear she's harmless."

"Tranked out of her mind is more like it. I'd be concerned, if I were you."

"If she didn't maul Annette, I can't imagine why she'd go after me."

A police siren penetrated the aluminum husk of the trailer; Joe Winder could hear it even over the guitar music and the tubercular groan of the ancient air conditioner. Parting the drapes, he watched one Metro squad car, and then another, enter the trailer park at high speed. Throwing dust, they sped past the turnoff to Carrie's place.

"Another domestic," Winder surmised.

"We average about four a week." Carrie refilled the wineglasses. "People who take love too damn seriously."

"Which reminds me." He opened his wallet and removed twelve dollars and placed it on a wicker table. "I was a very bad boy. I called her three times."

"You shmuck."

The Nina Situation. Every time he picked up the phone, it added four bucks to Carrie Lanier's bill. Worse, Nina pretended not to recognize his voice stuck to the script to the bitter end, no matter how much he pleaded for her to shut up and listen.

"It is pathetic," Winder conceded.

"No other word for it."

"Haven't you ever been like this?" Obsessed is what he meant.

"Nope." Carrie shrugged. "I've got to be honest."

"So what's the matter with me?"

"You're just having a bad week."

She went to the bedroom and changed to a lavender nightshirt that came down to the knees actually, a good four inches above the knees. Her hair was pulled back in a loose, sandy-colored ponytail.

Winder said, "You look sixteen years old." Only about three dozen other guys must have told her the same thing. His heart was pounding a little harder than he expected. "Tomorrow I'll get a motel room," he said.

"No, you're staying here."

"I appreciate it but "

"Please," Carrie said. "Please stay."

"I've got serious plans. You won't approve."

"How do you know? Besides, I'm a little nervous about this new job. It's nice to have someone here at the end of the day, someone to talk with."

Gazing at her, Winder thought: God, don't do this to me. Don't make me say it.

But he did: "You just want to keep an eye on me. You're afraid I'll screw everything up."

"You're off to a pretty good start."

"It's only fair to warn you: I'm going after Kingsbury."

"That's what I figured, Joe. Call it a wild hunch." She took his hand and led him toward the bedroom.

I'm not ready for this, Winder thought. Sweat broke out in a linear pattern on the nape of his neck. He felt as if he were back in high school, the day the prettiest cheerleader winked at him in biology class; at the time, he'd been examining frog sperm under a microscope, and the wink from Pamela Shaughnessy had fractured his concentration. It had taken a month or two for Joe Winder to recover, and by then Pamela was knocked up by the co-captain of the junior wrestling squad. The teacher said that's what she got for not paying attention in class.

The sheets in Carrie Lanier's bedroom were rose, the blanket was plum. A novel by Anne Tyler was open on the bedstand, next to a bottle of nose drops.

A fuzzy stuffed animal sat propped on the pillow: shoe-button eyes, round ears and short whiskers. Protruding slightly from its upturned, bucktoothed mouth was a patch of turquoise cotton that could only be a tongue.

"Violet the Vole," Carrie explained. "Note the sexy eyelashes."

"For Christ's sake," Joe Winder said.

"The Vance model comes with a tiny cigar."

"How much?" Winder asked.

"Eighteen ninety-five, plus tax. Mr. X ordered a shipment of three thousand." Carrie stroked his arm. "Come on, I feel like cuddling."

Wordlessly, Winder moved the toy mango vole off the bed. The tag said it was manufactured in the People's Republic of China. What must they think of us on the assembly line? Winder wondered. Stuffed rats with cigars!

Carrie Lanier said, "I've got the jitters about singing in the parade. I don't look much like a Seminole."

Winder assured her she would do just fine. "Listen, I need to ask a favor. If you say no, I'll understand."

"Shoot."

"I need you to steal something for me," he said.

"Sure."

"Just like that?"

Carrie said, "I trust you. I want to help."

"Do you see the possibilities?"

"Surprise me," she said.

"Don't worry, it won't be dangerous. A very modest effort, as larcenies go."

"Sure. First thing tomorrow."

"Why are you doing this?" he asked.

"Because it's a fraud, the whole damn place. But mainly because an innocent man is dead. I liked Will Koocher." She paused. "I like his wife, too."

She didn't have to add the last part, but Winder was glad she did. He said, "You might lose your job."

Carrie smiled. "There's always dinner theater."

It seemed a good time to break the ice, so he tried a brotherly peck on the cheek.

"Joe," she murmured, "you kiss like a parakeet."

"I'm slightly nervous myself."

Slowly she levered him to the bed, pinning his arms. "Why," she said, giggling, "why are you so nervous, little boy?"

"I really don't know." Her breasts pressed against his ribs, a truly wonderful sensation. Winder decided he could spend the remainder of his life in that position.

Carrie said, "Lesson Number One: How to smooch an Indian maiden."

"Go ahead," said Winder. "I'm all lips."

"Now do as I say."

"Anything," he agreed. "Anything at all."

As they kissed, an unrelated thought sprouted like a mushroom in the only dim crevice of Joe Winder's brain that was not fogged with lust.

The thought was: If I play this right, we won't need the gun after all.


TWENTY | NativeTongue | TWENTY-TWO