Francis X. Kingsbury was on the thirteenth green at the Ocean Reef Club when Charles Chelsea caught up with him and related the problem.
"Holy piss," said Kingsbury as Jake Harp was about to putt. "If it's not one thing, it's – hell, you deal with it, Charlie. Isn't that what I pay you for, to deal with this shit?"
Jake Harp pushed the putt to the right. He looked up stonily and said, "Thank you both very much."
"Sorry," Chelsea said. "We've got a little emergency here."
Kingsbury said, "If you're gonna be a crybaby, Jake, then do it over. Take another putt. And you, Charlie, what emergency? This is nothing, a goddamn prank."
Charles Chelsea suggested that it was considerably more serious than a prank. "Every television station in South Florida received a copy, Mr. Kingsbury. Plus the Herald and the New York Times. We'll be getting calls all day, I expect."
He followed Kingsbury and Jake Harp to the fourteenth tee. "The reason I say it's serious, we've got less than a week until the Summerfest Jubilee." It was set for August 6, the day Kingsbury had rescheduled the arrival of the phony five-millionth visitor to the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. The postponement caused by the truck accident had been a blessing in one way – it had given Charles Chelsea time to scout for a flashy new giveaway car. The "classic" Corvair had been junked in favor of a jet-black 300-Z, which had been purchased at bargain price from the estate of a murdered amphetamine dealer. Chelsea was further buoyed by the news that NEC weatherman Willard Scott had tentatively agreed to do a live broadcast from the Kingdom on Jubilee morning, as long as Risk Management cleared it with the network.
Overall, the publicity chief had been feeling fairly positive about Summerfest until some worm from the Herald called up to bust his hump about the press release.
What press release? Chelsea had asked. The one about hepatitis, said the guy from the newspaper. The hepatitis epidemic among Uncle Ely's Elves. In his smoothest, most controlled tone, Chelsea had asked the newspaper guy to please fax him a copy. The sight of it creeping off the machine had sent a prickle down the ridge of his spine.
As Jake Harp prepared to tee off, Chelsea showed the press release to Francis X. Kingsbury and said, "It's ours."
"What the hell you – I don't get it. Ours?"
"Meaning it's the real thing. The stationery is authentic."
Kingsbury frowned at the letterhead. "Jesus Christ, then we got some kinda mole. That what you're saying? Somebody on the inside trying to screw with our plans?"
"Not necessarily," Chelsea said.
Jake Harp hooked his drive into a fairway bunker. He said, "Don't you boys know when to shut up?"
This time Charles Chelsea didn't bother to apologize. He itched to remind Jake Harp that dead silence hadn't helped him one bit in the "78 Masters, when he'd four-putted the third hole at Augusta and let Nicklaus, Floyd, everybody and their mothers blow right past him.
Kingsbury said, "Probably it's some bastard from Disney. A ringer, hell, I should've known. Somebody they sent just to screw me up for the summer."
"It's nobody on the inside," said Chelsea. "It wasn't done on one of our typewriters."
"Who then? I mean, why in the name of fuck?" Jake Harp marveled at the inventive construction of Kingsbury's profanity. He imagined how fine it would feel to take a two-iron and pulverize the man's skull into melon rind. Instead he said, "You're up, Frank."
Charles Chelsea stood back while Kingsbury took a practice swing. It was not a thing of beauty. From the safety of the cart path, Chelsea said, "I think it's Joe Winder. The fellow we fired last week. The one we've had some trouble with."
"What makes you so sure – wait, Christ, didn't he used to work for The Rat?"
"Yes, briefly. Anyway, there's some stationery missing from Publicity. I thought you ought to know." "How much?"
"Two full boxes," Chelsea replied. Enough to do one fake press release every day for about three years. Or one hundred a day until the Summerfest Jubilee.
Kingsbury knocked his drive down the left side of the fairway and grunted in approval. He plopped his butt in the golf cart and said to Chelsea: "Let me see it one more time."
Chelsea gave him the paper and climbed on the back of the cart, wedging himself between the two golf bags. He wondered if this was how the Secret Service rode when the President was playing.
Pointing over Kingsbury's shoulder, Chelsea said, "It's definitely Winder's style. I recognize some of the dry touches."
The press release said:
Medical authorities at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills announced today that the outbreak of viral hepatitis that struck the popular theme park this week is "practically under control."
Visitors to the Amazing Kingdom are no longer in immediate danger of infection, according to specialists who flew in from the National Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. So far, five cases of hepatitis have been positively diagnosed. All the victims were actors who portray Uncle Ely's Elves, a troupe of mischievous trolls who frolic and dance in daily performances throughout the park.
Experts say there is no reason to suspect that the highly contagious disease is being transmitted in the food and beverages being served at the Amazing Kingdom. A more likely source is the vending machine located in a dressing room often used by Uncle Ely's Elves and several other performers.
Charles Chelsea, vice president in charge of publicity, said: "We know that the candy machine down there hadn't been serviced for about seven months. There are serious questions regarding the freshness and edibility of some of the chocolate products, as well as the breath mints. All items have been removed from the machine and are presently being tested for contamination."
Although no cases of hepatitis have been reported among visitors to the Amazing Kingdom, Monroe County health officials advise testing for anyone who has had recent contact with any of Uncle Ely's Elves – or food products handled by the elves. This advisory applies to all persons who might have posed for photographs or danced with one of the little people during the Nightly Pageant of Tropics.
Moe Strickland, the veteran character actor who popularized the role of Uncle Ely, said the stricken performers are resting quietly at Baptist Hospital in Miami, and are expected to recover. He added, "I'm worried about what the kids will think when they don't see us around the park for a few weeks. I guess we'll have to tell them that Uncle Ely took the elves on a summer vacation to Ireland, or wherever it is that elves go."
Chelsea said there are no plans to close the Amazing Kingdom to the public. "This was a freakish incident, and we are confident that the worst is over," he said. "From now on, we get back to the business of having fun."
Beginning tonight, the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills will present a multi-media tribute to Vance and Violet, the last surviving blue-tongued mango voles. The gentle animals were stolen from the park ten days ago in a daring daylight robbery, and later died tragically.
The show will be presented at 8 p.m. in the Rare Animal Pavilion, and will feature color slides, videotapes, rare outdoor film footage and a Claymation exhibit. Admission is $4 for adults, $2.50 for children.
Kingsbury reread the press release as they jolted down the cart path with Jake Harp at the wheel. When they stopped next to his golf ball, Kingsbury shoved the paper back at Chelsea. "It sounds awfully damn...what's the word?"
"Authentic, sir. This is what we're up against."
"I mean, hell, it sure puts me off the candy machines."
"It's fooling the reporters, too," Chelsea said.
"You say this maniac's got – what, two goddamn boxes?"
"That's what's missing."
Jake Harp said, "If you're not going to play that lie, pick the damn thing up."
Kingsbury paid no attention. "I guess we'll need – obviously, what am I saying! – get a new letterhead for Publicity."
"I ordered it this morning," Chelsea reported. "I'm afraid it won't be ready for two weeks."
"Don't tell me – God, two weeks. So what do we do if your theory's right? If it's Winder, I mean." Kingsbury took his stance and rifled a six-iron dead into the heart of a tea-colored pond.
"See what happens when you run your mouth," said Jake Harp.
"The options are limited," Chelsea told Kingsbury. "Do we come right out and admit it's a fake? A disgruntled former employee, blah, blah, blah. Or do we roll with it? Take the hit and hope it's over."
"Is that your advice? Roll with it?"
"For now, yes."
"Me, too," Francis Kingsbury said. "Besides, Pedro's on the case." A brand-new golf ball appeared in Kingsbury's right hand, and he dropped it with a flourish on the fairway. This time he nailed the six-iron to the center of the green, fifteen feet from the flag.
Jake Harp blinked sullenly and said nothing.
That's how Charles Chelsea saw it. The ultimate test of skills.
He warmed up the word processor and began to write:
The outbreak of viral hepatitis among performers at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills was not as serious as first believed, according to a respected epidemiologist who visited the popular tourist attraction Friday.
The disease was confined to only four persons, none of whom became seriously ill, according to Dr. Neil Shulman, an international expert on liver pathology.
"Visitors to the Amazing Kingdom are in absolutely no danger," Dr. Shulman declared. "There's no evidence that the disease originated here. The food and beverages I've sampled are perfectly safe – and tasty, too!"
Initially it was believed that five persons were infected with hepatitis. Later, however, it was determined that one of the ill employees was actually suffering from gallstones, a common and non-transmittable disorder.
The four men who were diagnosed with hepatitis all began showing symptoms on Wednesday morning. Contrary to earlier reports, however, the victims did not contract the virus from contaminated candy purchased at a vending machine in the Amazing Kingdom. It is now believed that the men – all of whom portray members of Uncle Ely's Elves – became infected during a recent promotional trip to the Caribbean aboard a Nassau-based cruise ship.
Moe Strickland, the crusty character actor who immortalized the character of Uncle Ely, recalled how some of his troupe had complained of "funky-tasting lobster" during the four-day excursion. Viral hepatitis has an incubation period of 15 to 45 days.
Those who were stricken spent only one night in the hospital, and are now resting comfortably at home. Although their conditions are good, they will not return to work until doctors are sure that they are not contagious.
Dr. Shulman, who has written extensively for national medical journals, said he is certain that the disease has been contained, and that no other employees or visitors to the Amazing Kingdom are in jeopardy. "It's as safe as can be," he said. "In fact, I'm staying over the weekend myself so I can ride the new porpoise!"
Skimming the text, Charles Chelsea changed the word "outbreak" to "incidence." Then, with uncharacteristic fire, he punched the Send button.
To an invisible enemy he snarled, "All right, Joey. It's go time."
The queasy feeling that always accompanied the prospect of bad publicity had given way to a fresh sense of challenge; Chelsea felt he'd been training his whole professional life for such a test. He was up against an opponent who was talented, ruthless and quite possibly insane.
As much as Chelsea feared and distrusted Winder, he respected his creative skills: the vocabulary, so rich in adjectives; the glib turn of an alliterative phrase – and, of course, the speed. Joe Winder was the fastest writer that Chelsea had ever seen.
Now it was just the two of them: Winder, holed up God knows where, hammering out inflammatory libels as fast as his fingers could fly. And on the other end, Chelsea himself, waiting to catch these malicious grenades and smother them. The alternative – meaning, to tell the truth – was unthinkable. To admit a hoaxster was loose, forging demented fantasies on Amazing Kingdom letterhead...what a story that would make. In their excitement the media would come all over themselves. Even worse, each publicity announcement from the theme park would be scrutinized severely by reporters and editors, whose careers are seldom enhanced by getting duped into print. One thing that Charles Chelsea (or any PR flack) didn't need was a more toxic level of skepticism and suspicion among the journalists he was supposed to manipulate.
So telling the truth about Joe Winder was out of the question. Whatever revolting fable Winder concocted next, Chelsea would be ready to extinguish it with press releases that were both calm and plausible. One pack of lies softening another.
It was going to be one roaring hell of a battle.
As the Publicity Department's fax machines were launching Chelsea's counterattack against the hepatitis scare, Moe Strickland arrived to bitch about sick pay and what the almighty Screen Actors Guild would say.
He lit up a cigar and said, "The union would go nuts."
"We don't recognize the union," Chelsea said coolly. "I really don't understand your objections, Moe. Most people would kill for two weeks off."
Moe Strickland protested with a wet cough. "You're docking us sick days, that's the objection. Because we're not really sick."
"That's something to be taken up with Personnel. It's simply not my bailiwick." Charles Chelsea waved his hands to clear the rancid smoke. The office was starting to smell like dead mice.
"I don't see why they can't just give us two weeks paid," said Moe Strickland, "and leave us our sick days. Whatever happened, it's sure not our fault."
"No, it's not," Chelsea agreed. "Listen to me, Moe. Uncle Ely and the Elves are on vacation, all right? They went to Ireland. That's the official story."
"For Christ's sake – Ireland? Does Ely sound like an Irish name?" Moe Strickland sneered in contempt.
"I'm not here to argue," Chelsea said. "But I do wish to caution you against speaking to the media. All interview requests are to be routed through me, understand?"
"You mean like the newspapers."
"Newspapers, television, anybody asking questions about a cruise. You tell them to call me. And make sure the elves do the same."
"What, now you don't trust us?"
"No interviews, Moe. The order comes straight from Mr. X."
"Figures," said Moe Strickland. "What's the name of that disease? Tell me again."
"It's a nasty one," Chelsea conceded.
"Who in hell would make up a story like that?" The actor smacked on the soggy stump of cigar. "What kind of sick bastard would say such a thing?"
Chelsea did not reply. He was watching a string of brown drool make its way down Moe Strickland's snowy beard.
"I feel like suing the sonofabitch," Moe Strickland remarked.
Chelsea said, "Don't take it personally. It's got nothing to do with you."
"I never had hepatitis. Is it some kind of dick disease? Because if it is, we're definitely suing the bastard. The boys're as clean as a whistle down there and they can sure prove it."
"Moe," said Chelsea, "please settle down."
"Does this mean we can't march in the Jubilee?"
"Not as Uncle Ely and the Elves. We'll get you some other costumes – gunslingers, how about that?"
"Oh great, midget gunslingers. No thanks." On his way out the door, Moe Strickland spit something heavy into Charles Chelsea's wastebasket.
That night, Channel 7 devoted forty seconds to the hepatitis scare, closing the piece with a sound-bite from Charles Chelsea, cool in a crisp blue oxford shirt and tortoiseshell eyeglasses. The glasses were a new touch. Not bad, thought Joe Winder, if you like the George Will look.
He was watching the news with a notebook on his lap. He called toward the kitchen: "He got the number of victims down from five to four. Plus he's planted the idea that the disease was picked up in the Caribbean, not at the Amazing Kingdom. Pretty damn slick on short notice!"
Carrie Lanier was fixing popcorn. "So they're toughing it out," she said. "Looks that way."
She came out and placed the bowl on the sofa between them. "They've got to be worried."
"I hope so." Joe Winder thanked her again for stealing the letterhead paper from the stockroom in the Publicity Department. "And for renting the fax," he added. "I'll pay you back."
"Not necessary, sir. Hey, I heard somebody shot up some rental cars on Card Sound Road." "Yeah, it was on the news."
"Did they catch the guy?"
"No," he said, "and they won't." He wondered if Skink's sniper attack was the beginning of a major offensive.
Carrie pointed at the television. "Hey, look, it's Monkey Mountain!"
A blue body bag was being carried out of the amusement park. A florid middle-aged schoolteacher, a Miss Pedrosa, was being interviewed about what happened.
She said her students thought the man was merely sleeping, not dead. The news reporter said the victim was believed to be a recent immigrant, a Latin male in his mid-thirties. A police detective at the scene of the shooting said it appeared to be a suicide. The detective's voice was nearly drowned out by the jabbering of angry baboons in a tree behind him.
Carrie said, "Well, Mr. X ought to be happy. Finally, someplace else is getting bad press."
"Strange place for a suicide," observed Joe Winder.
Carrie Lanier stuffed a handful of popcorn into his mouth. "They gave me my new costume today. You're gonna die."
It was a white fishnet tank suit. Carrie put it on and struck a Madonna pose. "Isn't it awful?" she said.
Joe Winder said she looked irresistibly slutty. "The Indians aren't going to like it, though."
"I've got a headband, too. And a black wig."
"The Seminoles didn't wear fishnets; they used them on bass. By the way, are those your nipples?"
"Who else's would they be?"
"What I mean is, isn't there supposed to be something underneath?"
"A tan body stocking," Carrie said. "I must've forgot to put it on."
Winder told her not to bother. Exuberantly she positioned herself on his lap and fastened her bare legs around his waist. "Before we make love," Carrie said, "you've got to hear the song."
It was a bastardized version of the famous production number in Evita. They both burst out laughing when she did the refrain. "I can't believe it," Joe Winder said.
Carrie kept singing, "Don't Cry for Me, Osceola!" Winder buried his face in her breasts. Unconsciously he began nibbling through the fishnet suit.
"Now stop." Carrie clutched the back of his head. "I've forgotten the rest of the words."
Still gnawing, Winder said, "I feel like a shark."
"You do indeed." She pulled him even closer. "I know a little boy who forgot to shave this morning, didn't he?"
"I was busy writing." A muffled voice rising out of her cleavage.
Carrie smiled. "I know you were writing, and I'm proud of you. What's the big news at the Kingdom tomorrow – typhoid? Trichinosis?"
He lifted his head. "No more diseases. From now on, it's the heavy artillery."
She kissed him on the nose. "You're a very sick man. Why do I like you so much?"
"Because I'm full of surprises."
"Oh, like this?" Carrie grabbed him and gave a little tug. "Is this for me?"
"If you're not careful."
"Hold still," she told him.
"Aren't you going to take off that outfit?"
"What for? Look at all these convenient holes. We've just got to get you lined up."
"It's a good thing," Joe Winder said, "it doesn't have gills."
He held his breath as Carrie Lanier worked on the delicate alignment. Then she adjusted the Naugahyde sofa cushion behind his head, and braced her hands on the windowsill. The lights from the highway skipped in her eyes, until she closed them. Slowly she started rocking and said, "Tonight we're shooting for four big ones."
"I told you, Joe, I'm a very goal-oriented person."
"I think I'm tangled."
"You're doing fine," she said.
He was still hanging on, minutes later, when Carrie stopped moving.
"What is it?"
"Joe, did you go back to the apartment tonight?" She was whispering.
"Just for a minute. I needed some clothes."
"What's the matter?"
Carrie said, "Somebody's watching us. Somebody followed you here." She lowered herself until she was flat against him, so she couldn't be seen from the window. "It's a man," she said. "He's just standing out there."
"What's he look like?"
"Guess I'd better do something."
"I'm not exactly sure," Joe Winder said. "I need to refocus here."
"In other words, you want me to climb off."
"Well, I think the mood has been broken."
"The thing is – "
"I know. We'll need scissors." His fingers, his chin, everything was tangled in the netting.
Outside the trailer, something moved. A shadow flickering across the windowpane. Footsteps crunching on the gravel. Then a hand on the doorknob, testing the lock.
Carrie's muscles tightened. She put her lips to his ear. "Joe, are we going to die like this?"
"There are worse ways," he said.
And then the door buckled.