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TWENTY-TWO

Pedro Luz was in Francis Kingsbury's den when the blackmailers called. He listened to Kingsbury's half of the conversation, a series of impatient grunts, and said to Churrito, "Looks like we're in business."

Kingsbury put down the phone and said, "All set. Monkey Mountain at four sharp. In front of the baboons."

Monkey Mountain was a small animal park off Krome Avenue, a cut-rate imitation of the venerable Monkey Jungle. To Pedro Luz, it didn't sound like an ideal place to kill a couple of burglars.

With a snort, Kingsbury said, "These assholes, who knows where they get these cute ideas. Watching television, maybe."

"What is this monkey place?" Churrito asked.

"For Christ's sake, like the name says, it's basically monkeys. Two thousand of the damn things running all over creation." Kingsbury disliked monkeys and had summarily vetoed plans for a Primate Pavilion at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. He felt that apes had limited commercial appeal; Disney had steered clear of them, too, for what that was worth.

"For one thing, they bite. And, two, they shit like a sewer pipe." Kingsbury put the issue to rest. "If they're so damn smart, how come they don't hold it. Like people."

"They tasty good," Churrito remarked, licking his lips. "Squirrel monkey is best, where I come from."

Pedro Luz sucked noisily on the open end of the IV tube. He had purchased a dozen clear bags of five-percent dextrose solution from a wholesale medical shop in Perrine. The steroid pills he pulverized with the butt of his Colt, and funneled the powder into the bags. No one at the gym had ever heard of getting stoked by this method; Pedro Luz boasted that it was all his idea, he'd never even checked with a doctor. The only part that bothered him was using the needle a problematic endeavor, since anabolic steroids were usually injected into muscle, not veins. Whenever Pedro Luz was having second thoughts, he'd yank out the tube and insert it directly in his mouth.

Sitting in Kingsbury's house, it gave him great comfort to feel again these magnificent potent chemicals flooding his system. With nourishment came strength, and with strength came confidence. Pedro Luz was afraid of nothing. He felt like stepping in front of a speeding bus, just to prove it.

Churrito pointed at the intravenous rig and said: "Even monkeys aren't that stupid."

"Put a lid on it," Pedro growled. He thought: No wonder these dorks lost the war.

"Stuff make you bulls shrink up. Dick get leetle tiny." Churrito seemed unconcerned by the volcanic mood changes that swept over Pedro Luz every few hours. To Francis Kingsbury he said, "Should see the zits on his cholders."

"Some other time," Kingsbury said. "You guys, now, don't get into it. There's work to do I want these assholes off my back, these fucking burglars, and I want the files. So don't start up with each other, I mean, save your energy for the job."

Pedro Luz said, "Don't worry."

The phone rang and Kingsbury snatched it. The call obviously was long-distance because Kingsbury began to shout. Something about a truck accident ruining an important shipment of fish. The caller kept cutting in on Kingsbury, and Kingsbury kept making half-assed excuses, meaning some serious money already had changed hands.

When Kingsbury hung up, he said, "That was Hong Kong. Some cat-food outfit, I set up this deal and it didn't work out. What the hell, they'll get their dough back."

"My uncle had a fish market," remarked Pedro Luz. "It's a very hard business."

Without warning Mrs. Kingsbury came into the room. She wore terry-cloth tennis shorts and the top half of a lime-colored bikini. She nodded at Churrito, who emitted a low tomcat rumble. Pedro Luz glowered at him.

She said, "Frankie, I need some money for my lessons."

Under his breath, Churrito said, "I give her some lessons. Chew bet I will."

Kingsbury said, "I just gave you was it yesterday? like two hundred bucks."

"That was yesterday." Mrs. Kingsbury's eyes shifted to Pedro Luz, and the bottle of fluid on the hanger. "What's the matter with him?" she asked.

"One of them crash diets," said her husband.

Churrito said, "Yeah, make your muscles get big and your dick shrivel up like a noodle."

Pedro Luz reddened. "It's vitamins, that's all." He gnawed anxiously on the end of the tube, as if it were a piece of beef jerky.

"What kind of vitamins?" asked Kingsbury's wife.

"For men," said Pedro Luz. "Men-only vitamins."

As always, it was a test to be in the same room with Mrs. Kingsbury and her phenomenal breasts. Pedro Luz had given up sex three years earlier in the misinformed belief that ejaculation was a waste of precious hormones. Somehow, Pedro Luz had acquired the false notion that semen was one-hundred-percent pure testosterone, and consequently he was distraught when a popular weightlifter magazine reported that the average sexually active male would squirt approximately 19.6 gallons in a lifetime. For a fitness fiend such as Pedro Luz, the jism statistic was a shocker. To expend a single pearly drop of masculine fuel on a recreational pleasure was frivolous and harmful and plainly against God's plan; how could it do anything but weaken the body?

As it happened, Pedro Luz's fruit-and-steroid diet had taken the edge off his sex drive anyway. Abstinence had not proved to be difficult, except when Mrs. Kingsbury was around.

"I don't like needles," she announced. "I don't like the way they prick."

Again Churrito began to growl lasciviously. Pedro Luz said, "After a while, you don't even notice." He showed Mrs. Kingsbury how the IV rig moved on wheels.

"Like a shopping cart," she said gaily. Her husband handed her a hundred-dollar bill and she waved goodbye.

There she goes," Kingsbury said. "Pedro, did you show your little buddy the golf painting? The one we did at Biltmore?"

"I saw," Churrito said. "In the living room."

"Those are the real McCoys," said Kingsbury.

Churrito looked perplexed. "McCoys?"

"Her tits, I mean. How you say, hoot-aires? Kingsbury cackled. "Now, about this afternoon, these assholes I'm not interested in details. Not at all interested."

That was fine with Pedro Luz. He'd skipped the details the last time, too, when they had roughed up the old lady at the condo. Although Churrito had nagged him to lighten up, the beating had been therapeutic for Pedro, a venting of toxic brain fumes. Like the rush he got while pinching the heads off Joe Winder's goldfish.

"I doubt this monkey place will be crowded," Kingsbury was saying, "except for the baboons."

"We'll be careful," Pedro Luz assured him.

"You get caught, no offense, but I don't know you. Never seen you bastards before in my life."

"We won't get caught."

Kingsbury snapped his fingers. "The files, I'll give you a list. Don't do anything till you get my files back. After that, it's your call."

Pedro Luz looked at his wristwatch and said it was time to go. The wheels on the IV rig twittered as it followed him to the door.

"I wanted to ask," Churrito said, "is it okay I look at the pitcher again? The one with your wife and those real McCoys."

"Be my guest," said Kingsbury, beaming. "That's what it's there for."


One problem, Bud Schwartz realized, was that he and his partner had never done a blackmail before. In fact, he wasn't sure if it was blackmail or extortion, technically speaking.

"Call it a trade," said Danny Pogue.

Bud Schwartz smiled. Not bad, he thought. A trade it is.

They were waiting in the rented Cutlass in the parking lot of Monkey Mountain. Mrs. Kingsbury's chrome-plated pistol lay on the seat between them. Neither of them wanted to handle it.

"Christ, I hate guns," said Bud Schwartz.

"How's your hand?"

"Getting there. How's your foot?"

"Pretty good." Danny Pogue opened a bag of Burger King and the oily smell of hot fries filled the car. Bud Schwartz rolled down the window and was counter-assailed by the overpowering odor of monkeys.

Chewing, Danny Pogue said, "I can't get over that guy in the house, Molly's friend. Just come right in."

"Bigfoot," said Bud Schwartz, "without the manners."

"I just hope he don't come back."

"You and me both."

Bud Schwartz was watching out for Saabs. Over the phone Kingsbury had told him he'd be driving a "navy Saab with tinted windows; so far, no sign of the car.

He asked his partner: "You ever done a Saab?"

"No, they all got alarms," said Danny Pogue. "Like radar is what I heard. Just look at 'em funny, and they go off. Same with the Porsches, I fucking whisper just walkin' by the damn things."

At two minutes after four, Bud Schwartz said it was time to get ready. Gingerly he put the gun in his pocket. "Leave the files under the seat," he said. "We'll make the trade after we got the money."

At the ticket window they got a map of Monkey Mountain. It wasn't exactly a sprawling layout.

"Hey, they even got a gorilla," said Danny Pogue, "name of Brutus. From the picture it looks like an African silverback."

"Fascinating," Bud Schwartz said. He'd had about enough of animal lore. Lately Danny Pogue had been spending too many hours watching wildlife documentaries on the Discovery Channel. It was all he talked about, he and Molly, and it was driving Bud Schwartz up the wall. One night, instead of the Cubs game, he had to sit through ninety minutes of goddamn hummingbirds. To Bud Schwartz they resembled moths with beaks; he got dizzy watching the damn things, even the slow-motion parts. Danny Pogue, on the other hand, had been enthralled. The fact that hummingbirds also inhabited North Key Largo heightened his sense of mission against Francis X. Kingsbury.

As they set out for the Baboon Tree, Danny Pogue said, "Why'd you pick this place, Bud?"

"Cause it's out in public. That's how you do these things, extortions."

"Are you sure?"

The visitor paths through Monkey Mountain were enclosed by chicken wire, giving the effect that it was the humans who were encaged while the wild beasts roamed free. Bud Schwartz was uncomfortable with this arrangement. Above his head, screeching monkeys loped along the mesh, begging for peanuts and crackers that Bud Schwartz had neglected to purchase at the concession stand. The impatient animals howlers, gibbons, rhesus and spider monkeys got angrier by the second. They bared yellow teeth and spit maliciously and shook the chicken wire. When Danny Pogue reached up to give one of them a shiny dime, it defecated in his hair.

"You happy now?" said Bud Schwartz. "Damn, I can't believe it." Danny Pogue stopped to stick his head under a water fountain. "Don't they ever feed these goddamn things?" he said.

Above them, the gang of furry, shrieking, incontinent beggars had swollen to three dozen. Bud Schwartz and Danny Pogue shielded their heads and jogged the rest of the way to the Baboon Tree, an ancient ficus in the hub of a small plaza. Bud Schwartz was relieved to escape the yammering din and the rain of monkey feces. With a sigh he sat next to a Japanese family on a concrete bench. A moat of filmy brown water separated them from the bustling baboon colony in the big tree. Danny Pogue said: "Know why they don't let the other monkeys together with the baboons?"

"Why not?"

"Because the baboons'd eat 'em."

"What a loss that would be."

"Let's go see Brutus."

"Danny, we're here on business. Now shut the fuck up, if you don't mind."

The Japanese husband apparently understood at least one word of English, because he gave Bud Schwartz a sharp look. The Japanese wife, who hadn't heard the profane remark, signaled that she would like a photograph of the whole family in front of the moat. Bud Schwartz motioned that his partner would do the honors; Danny Pogue had stolen many Nikons, but he'd never gotten a chance to use one. He arranged the Japanese in a neat row according to height, and snapped several pictures. In the background were many wild-eyed baboons, including a young male gleefully abusing itself.

Bud Schwartz was glad the children weren't watching. After the Japanese had moved on, Danny Pogue said: "That was two hundred bucks right there, a Nikon with autofocus. I got a guy in Carol City fences nothing but cameras."

"I told you," said Bud Schwartz, "we're through with that. We got a new career." He didn't sound as confident as he would've liked. Where the hell was Kingsbury?

Danny Pogue joined him on the concrete bench. "So how much is he gonna bring?"

"Fifty is what I told him." Bud Schwartz couldn't get the tremor out of his voice. "Fifty thousand, if he ever shows up."

In the parking lot, Pedro Luz and Churrito got into a heated discussion about bringing the IV rack. Churrito prevailed on the grounds that it would attract too much attention.

The first thing they noticed about Monkey Mountain was the stink, which Churrito likened to that of a mass grave. Next came the insistent clamor of the creatures themselves, clinging to the chicken wire and extending miniature brown hands in hopes of food. Churrito lit up a Marlboro and handed it to a rhesus, who took a sniff and hurled it back at him. Pedro Luz didn't think it was the least bit funny; he was sinking into one of his spells every heartbeat sent cymbals crashing against his brainpan. An act of irrational violence was needed to calm the mood. It was fortunate, then, that the monkeys were safely on the other side of the chicken wire. Every time one appeared on the mesh over his head, Pedro Luz would jump up and smash at it savagely with his knuckles. This exercise was repeated every few seconds, all the way to the Baboon Tree.

The burglars and it had to be them, greasy-looking rednecks were sitting on a bench. Nobody else was around.

Pedro Luz whispered to Churrito: "Remember to get their car keys. They left the damn files in the car."

"What if they dint?"

"They did. Now be quiet."

Danny Pogue wasn't paying attention. He was talking about a TV program that showed a male baboon killing a zebra, that's how strong they were. A monkey that could kill something as big as a horse! Bud Schwartz was tuned out entirely; he was sizing up the two new men. The tall one, God Almighty, he was trouble. Built like a grizzly but that wasn't the worst of it; the worst was the eyes. Bud Schwartz could spot a doper two miles away; this guy was buzzing like a yellow jacket. The other one was no prize, dull-eyed and cold, but at least he was of normal dimensions. What caught Bud Schwartz's eye was the Cordovan briefcase that the smaller man was carrying.

"Get ready," he said to Danny Pogue.

"But that ain't Kingsbury."

"You don't miss a trick."

"Bud, I don't like this."

"Really? I'm having the time of my life." Bud Schwartz stood up and approached the two strangers. "Where's the old man?"

"Where's the files?" asked Pedro Luz.

"Where's the money?"

Churrito held up the briefcase. It was plainly stuffed with something, possibly fifty thousand in cash.

"Now," said Pedro Luz, "where's the damn files?"

"We give 'em to the old man and nobody else."

Pedro Luz checked over both shoulders to make sure there were no tourists around. In the same motion his right hand casually fished into the waistband of his trousers for the Colt. Before he could get to it, something dug into his right ear. It was another gun. A burglar with a gun! Pedro Luz was consumed with fury.

Bud Schwartz said, "Don't move." The words fluttered out. Danny Pogue gaped painfully.

Churrito laughed. "Good work," he said to Pedro Luz. "Excellent."

"I'm gonna be straight about this," said Bud Schwartz, "I don't know shit about guns."

The veins in Pedro Luz's neck throbbed like a tangle of snakes. He was seething, percolating in hormones, waiting for the moment. The gun barrel cut into his earlobe but he didn't feel a thing. Trying not to snarl, he said, "Don't push it, chico."

"I ain't kidding," Bud Schwartz said in a voice so high he didn't recognize it as his own. "You even fart; I may blow your brains out. Explain that to your friend."

Churrito seemed indifferent to the idea. He shrugged and handed the briefcase to Danny Pogue. "Open it," Bud Schwartz told him. Again Pedro Luz asked, "Where are the files?" He anticipated that the burglars would soon be unable to answer the question, since he intended to kill them. And possibly Churrito while he was in the mood.

Even the baboons sensed trouble, for they had fallen silent in the boughs of the ficus. Danny Pogue opened the Cordovan briefcase and showed Bud Schwartz what was inside: sanitary napkins.

"Too bad," said Bud Schwartz. And it was too bad. He had no clue what to do next. Danny Pogue took one of the maxi-pads out of the briefcase and examined it, as if searching for insight.

Pedro Luz's steroid-marinated glands were starting to cook. Infused with the strength of a thousand warriors, he announced that he wouldn't let a mere bullet spoil Mr. Kingsbury's plan. He told Bud Schwartz to go ahead and fire, and went so far as to reach up and seize the burglar's arm.

As they struggled, Pedro Luz said, "Shoot me, you pussy! Shoot me now!"

Out of the corner of his eye, Bud Schwartz spotted Danny Pogue running away in the general direction of the gorilla compound moving impressively for someone fresh off crutches.

Just as Pedro Luz was preparing to snap Bud Schwartz's arm like a matchstick, Mrs. Kingsbury's chrome-plated pistol shook loose from the burglar's fingers and flew over the moat. The gun landed in a pile of dead leaves at the foot of the ficus tree, where it was retrieved by a laconic baboon with vermilion buttocks. Bud Schwartz wasn't paying attention, what with Pedro Luz hurling him to the ground and kneeling on his neck and trying to twist his head off. Meanwhile the other man was going through Bud Schwartz's trousers in search of the car keys.

When Bud Schwartz tried to shout for help, Pedro Luz slapped a large moist hand over his mouth. It was then that Bud Schwartz spotted the bandaged nub of the right index finger, and assimilated in his dying deoxygenated consciousness the probability that this was the same goon who had brutalized Molly McNamara. The burglar decided, in the hastening gray twilight behind his eyeballs, that the indignity of being found mugged and dead in a monkey park might be mitigated by a final courageous deed, such as disfiguring a murderous steroid freak which Bud Schwartz attempted to do by sucking Pedro Luz's hand into his jaws and chomping down with heedless ferocity.

The wailing of Pedro Luz brought the baboon colony to life, and a hellish chorus enveloped the three men as they fought on the ground. A gunshot was heard, and the monkeys scattered adroitly to the highest branches of the graceful old tree.

Pedro Luz rolled off Bud Schwartz and groped with his bloody paw for the Colt. It was still in his waistband. Only two things prevented him from shooting the burglar: the sight of fifty chattering children skipping toward him down the monkey trail, and the sight of Churrito lying dead with a grape-sized purple hole beneath his left eye.

Pedro Luz pushed himself to his feet, stepped over the body and ran. Bud Schwartz did the same much more slowly and in the opposite direction but not before pausing to contemplate the visage of the dead Nicaraguan. Judging by the ironic expression on Churrito's face, he knew exactly what had happened to him.

Now the killer was halfway up the ficus tree, barking and slobbering and shaking the branches. Mrs. Kingsbury's gun glinted harmlessly in the brackish shallows, where the startled baboon had dropped it.

The oxygen returning to Bud Schwartz's head brought a chilling notion that maybe the monkey had been aiming the damn thing. Maybe he'd even done it before. Stranger things had occurred in Miami.

Bud Schwartz lifted the keys to the Cutlass from the dead man's hand and jogged away just as Miss Juanita Pedrosa's kindergarten class marched into the plaza.


TWENTY-ONE | NativeTongue | TWENTY-THREE