Early on the morning of July 29, a Sunday, the fax machine in the wire room of the Miami Herald received the following transmission:
REPTILE SCARE CLOSES THEME PARK; HIGH WATER BLAMED
The Amazing Kingdom of Thrills will be closed Sunday, July 29, due to an infestation of poisonous snakes caused by heavy summer rains and flooding. Cottonmouth moccasins numbering "in the low hundreds" swarmed the popular South Florida theme park over the weekend, according to Charles Chelsea, vice president of publicity.
Several workers and visitors were bitten Saturday, but no deaths were reported. "Our medical-emergency personnel responded to the crisis with heroic efficiency," Chelsea stated.
Reptile experts say snakes become more active in times of heavy rainfall, and travel great distances to seek higher ground. Even the so-called water moccasin, which thrives in canals and brackish lagoons, becomes uncommonly restless and aggressive during flood-type conditions.
The cottonmouth is a pit viper known for its large curved fangs and whitish mouth. While extremely painful, the bite of the snake is seldom fatal if medical treatment is administered quickly. However, permanent damage to muscle and soft tissue often occurs.
The moccasin is prevalent throughout South Florida, although it is rare to find more than two or three snakes together at a time. Cluster migrations are a rarity in nature. "They appeared to be hunting for toads," Chelsea explained.
Officials ordered the theme park to be closed temporarily while teams of armed hunters captured and removed the wild reptiles, some of which were nearly six feet in length.
Chelsea said that the Amazing Kingdom will reopen Tuesday morning with a full schedule of events. He added: "While we are confident that the grounds will be perfectly safe and secure, we are also suggesting, as a precaution, that our visitors wear heavy rubber boots. These will be available in all sizes, for a nominal rental fee."
Reporters began calling before eight o'clock. Charles Chelsea was summoned from home; he arrived bleary-eyed and tieless. Clutching a Styrofoam cup of black coffee, he hunched over the desk to examine Joe Winder's newest atrocity.
"Wicked bastard," he said after reading the last line.
A secretary told him about the TV helicopters. "We've counted five so far," she reported. "They're trying to get an aerial shot of the snakes."
"The snakes!" Chelsea laughed dismally.
To ignite his competitive spirit, the secretary said, "I can't believe they'd fall for a dumb story like this."
"Are you kidding?" Chelsea buried his hands in his hair. "Snakes are dynamite copy. Anything with a snake, the media eats it up." A law of journalism of which Joe Winder, the ruthless sonofabitch, was well aware.
Chelsea sucked down the dregs of the coffee and picked up the phone. Francis X. Kingsbury answered on the seventeenth ring.
"I've got some extremely bad news," Chelsea said.
"Horseshit, Charlie, if you get my drift." It sounded as if Kingsbury's hay fever was acting up. "Calling me at home, Christ, what's your job description anyway – professional pussy? Is that what I hired you for?"
"No, sir." The publicity man gritted his teeth and told Kingsbury what had happened. There was a long unpleasant silence, followed by the sound of a toilet being flushed.
"I'm in the can," Kingsbury said. "That's what you get for calling me at home."
"Sir, did you hear what I said? About the snake story that Winder put out?"
"Yes, hell, I'm not deaf. Hold on." Chelsea heard the toilet flush again. Grimly he motioned for his secretary to get him another cup of coffee.
On the other end, Kingsbury said, "All right, so on this snake thing, what do you think?"
"Close the park for a day."
"Don't be an idiot."
"There's no choice, Mr. Kingsbury. Even if we came clean and admitted the press release was fake, nobody's going to believe it. They'll think we're covering up." That was the insidious genius of Joe Winder's strategy.
Kingsbury said: "Close the goddamn park, are you kidding? What about business?"
"Business is shot," Chelsea replied. "Nobody but reptile freaks would show up today. We're better off closing the Kingdom and taking our lumps."
"Un-fucking-real, this is."
"I forgot to mention, we'll also need to purchase some boots. Several hundred pairs." Chelsea's fingers began to cramp on the telephone receiver. He said, "Don't worry, I'll put something out on the wires right away."
"Everything's under control, blah, blah, blah."
"Right," said Chelsea. Now he could hear the water running in Francis Kingsbury's sink.
"I bruffing my teef," Kingsbury gargled.
Chelsea waited for the sound of spitting. Then he said, "I'll call a press conference for noon. We'll get somebody, some scientist, to say the snakes are almost gone. Then we'll reopen tomorrow."
Kingsbury said, "Four hundred grand is what this fucking clown is costing me, you realize? A whole day's receipts."
"Sir, it could get worse."
"Don't say that, Charlie."
In a monotone Chelsea read the phony press release to Francis Kingsbury, who said: "Christ Almighty, they get six feet long! These poison cottonheads do?"
"I don't know. I don't know how big they get." Chelsea wanted to tell Kingsbury that it really didn't matter if the imaginary snakes were two feet or twenty feet, the effect on tourists was the same.
Over the buzz of his electric razor, Kingsbury shouted, "What does he want – this prick Winder – what's he after?"
"Nothing we can give him," Chelsea said. "It's got to stop or he'll kill our business."
"Yes, I know."
"And I'll tell you what else," Francis Kingsbury said. "I'm very disappointed in that fucking Pedro."
Molly McNamara was writing a letter to her daughter in Minneapolis when Danny Pogue rushed into the den. Excitedly he said: "I just saw on the news about all them snakes!" His Adam's apple juked up and down.
"Yes," Molly said, "it's very odd."
"Maybe you could get your people together. The Mothers of Wilderness. Maybe go down to Key Largo and demonstrate."
"Well, it said on the news they're killing 'em all. The snakes, I mean. That don't seem right – it ain't their fault about the high water." Danny Pogue was rigid with indignation, and Molly hated to dampen the fervor.
Gently she said, "I don't know that they're actually killing the snakes. The radio said something about capture teams."
"No, unh-uh, I just saw on the TV. A man from the Amazing Kingdom said they were killing the ones they couldn't catch. Especially the preggy ones." He meant "pregnant." "It's that Kingsbury asshole, pardon my French."
Molly McNamara capped her fountain pen and turned the chair toward Danny Pogue. She told him she understood how he felt. "But we've got to choose our battles carefully," she said, "if we hope to get the public on our side."
"So there's not much sympathy for poisonous snakes."
Danny Pogue looked discouraged. Molly said, "I'm sorry, Danny, but it's true. Nobody's going to care if they use flamethrowers, as long as they get rid of the cottonmouths."
"But it ain't right."
Molly patted his knee. "There's plenty of snakes out there. Not like the mango voles, where there were only two left in the entire world."
With those words she could have hammered an icepick into Danny Pogue's heart. Morosely he bowed his head. As his environmental consciousness had been awakened, the vole theft had begun to weigh like a bleak ballast on his soul; he'd come to feel personally responsible for the extinction of the voles, and had inwardly promised to avenge his crime.
He said to Molly: "What's that word you used before – 'atome' "?
"Atone, Danny. A-t-o-n-e. It means making amends."
"Yeah, well, that's me."
Molly smiled and removed her reading glasses. "Don't worry, we've all made mistakes in our lives. We've all committed errors of judgment."
"Like when you shot me and Bud. Before you got to know us better."
"No, Danny, that wasn't a mistake. I'd do the same thing all over again, if it became necessary."
"Oh, now, don't take it the wrong way. Come here." Molly reached out and took him by the shoulders. Firmly she pulled his greasy head to her breast. The heavy jasmine scent brought the tickle of a sneeze to Danny Pogue's nostrils.
Molly gave him a hug and said, "Both you boys mean so much to me."
Danny Pogue might have been moved to tears, except for the familiar bluish glint of the pistol tucked in the folds of Molly's housedress.
He said, "You want some tea?"
"That would be lovely."
As soon as Carrie Lanier left for work, Skink curled up in the shower, turned on the cold water and went to sleep.
Joe Winder kept writing for thirty minutes, until his will dissolved and he could no longer concentrate. He dialed Miriam's house and asked for Nina.
"It's six-dirty inna morning," Miriam complained.
"I know what time it is. May I speak to her, please?"
"What if chee no here?"
"Miriam, I swear to God – "
"All rye, Joe. Chew wait."
When Nina came on the line, she sounded wide awake. "This is very rude of you," she said crossly, "waking Miriam."
"What about you?"
"I was writing."
"Me, too," Joe Winder said. "You were working on your phone fantasies?"
"My stories, yes."
"That's the main reason for the call. I had an idea for you."
Nina said, "I've got some good news, Joe. I'm getting syndicated."
"Hey, that's great." Syndicated? What the hell was she talking about. Ann Landers was syndicated. Ellen Goodman was syndicated. Not women who write about bondage on Olympic diving boards.
"There's a company called Hot Talk," Nina said. "They own, like, two hundred of these adult phone services. They're going to buy my scripts and market them all over. Chicago, Denver, even Los Angeles."
"That's really something."
"Yeah, in a few months I'll be able to get off the phones and write full-time. It's like a dream come true."
She asked about Joe's idea for a fantasy and he described it. "Not bad," Nina admitted. "It just might work."
"Oh, it'll work," Winder said, but Nina didn't take the bait. She expressed no curiosity. "Remember," he added, "it has to be a fishnet suit with absolutely nothing underneath."
"Joe, please. I understand the principle."
He was hoping she would ask how he was doing, what he'd been up to, and so on. Instead she told him she'd better go because she didn't want to keep Miriam awake.
Winder fought for more time. "Basically, I called to see how you're doing. I admit it."
"Well, I'm doing fine."
"Things might get crazy in the next week or so. I didn't want you to worry."
"I'll try not to." Her tone was disconcertingly sincere. Winder waited for a follow-up question, but none came.
He blurted: "Are you seeing anybody?"
"What I mean is, there's a man."
"Oh, ho!" A hot stab in the sternum.
"But we're not exactly seeing each other," Nina said. "He calls up and we talk."
"He calls on the 976 number? You mean he's a customer?"
"It's not like the others. We talk about deep things, personal things – I can't describe it, you wouldn't understand."
"And you've never actually met him?"
"Not face-to-face, no. But you can tell a lot from the way a person talks. I think he must be very special."
"What if he's a hunchback? What if he's got pubic lice?" Joe Winder was reeling. "Nina, don't you see how sick this is? You're falling in love with a stranger's voice!"
"He's very sensual, Joe. I can tell."
"For God's sake, the man's calling on the come line. What does that tell you?"
"I don't want to get into it," Nina said. "You asked if I was interested in anyone, and I told you. I should've known you'd react this way."
"Just tell me, is he paying for the telephone calls?"
"We've agreed to split the cost."
"And we're meeting for dinner Tuesday up in the Gables."
"Wonderful," said Joe Winder. "What color trench coat did he say he'd be wearing?"
"I hate you," Nina remarked.
They hung up on each other at precisely the same instant.
Pedro Luz slithered beneath Carrie's mobile home. Lying on his back in the cool dirt, he listened to the shower running and laughed giddily. He placed both hands on a wooden floor beam and pushed with all his strength; he was certain that he felt the double-wide rise above him, if only a few millimeters. With a bullish snort, he tried again. To bench-press a mobile home! Pedro Luz grimaced in ecstasy.
He was proud of himself for tracing the car, even if the detective work entailed only the pushing of three lousy buttons on a computer. He was equally proud of himself for locating the address in the dark and remaining invisible to the occupants of the trailer. At dawn he had watched the woman drive off to work, leaving him alone with that crazy doomed bastard, Joe Winder.
Pedro Luz had spent a long time fueling himself for the task. He had strung the intravenous rigs in the storage room of the Security Department at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. There, stretched on a cot, he had dripped large quantities of horse steroids into both arms. Afterwards, Pedro Luz had guzzled nine Heinekens and studied himself naked in a full-length mirror.
The mirror examination had become a ritual to make sure that his penis and testicles were not shrinking, as Churrito had warned they would. Pedro Luz had become worried when his security-guard uniform had gotten baggy in the crotch, so every night he took a measuring tape and checked his equipment. Then he would leaf through some pornographic magazines to make sure he could still get a hard-on; on some evenings, when he was particularly anxious, he would even measure the angle of his erection.
On the night he went after Joe Winder, the angle was exactly zero degrees. Pedro Luz blamed it on the beer.
Inside the trailer, Winder finished typing another counterfeit press release, which said:
The widow of a young scientist killed at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills has been offered a settlement of $2.8 million, officials of the popular amusement park have announced.
The payment would be made in a single installment to Deborah Koocher, age 31, of New York. Her husband, Dr. William Bennett Koocher, was a noted wildlife biologist who helped supervise the Endangered Species Program at the Amazing Kingdom. Dr. Koocher died two weeks ago in a tragic drowning at the park's outdoor whale tank. That incident is still under investigation.
Charles Chelsea, vice president of publicity, said the cash offer to Mrs. Koocher "demonstrates our sense of loss and sorrow over the untimely death of her husband."
Added Chelsea: "Will was instrumental in our rare-animal programs, and his heroic efforts to save the blue-tongued mango vole won international acclaim."
In a statement released Sunday morning, Francis X. Kingsbury, founder and chairman of the Amazing Kingdom, said that Dr. Koocher's death "was a tragedy for all of us at the park. We had come to love and admire Will, who was as much a part of our family as Robbie Raccoon or Petey Possum."
The $2.8 million settlement offer is "a gesture not only of compassion, but fairness," Mr. Kingsbury added. "If Dr. Koocher's family isn't satisfied, we would certainly consider increasing the payment."
Joe Winder reread the announcement, inserted the word "completely" before "satisfied," and fed the paper into the fax machine. He considered phoning Nina again, but decided it was no use; the woman was groping recklessly for male companionship. What else could explain her irrational attraction to a disembodied masculine voice?
Besides, Joe had Carrie now – or she had him. The dynamics of the relationship had yet to be calibrated.
Winder was in the mood for acoustic guitar, so he put on some Neil Young and fixed himself four eggs, scrambled, and two English muffins with tangerine marmalade. Glancing out the kitchen window, he noticed a tow truck parked crookedly on the shoulder of the dirt lane. He didn't see a driver.
The shower had been running for some time. Winder cracked the door and saw Skink curled in a fetal snooze, cold water slapping on the blaze weather suit. Winder decided not to wake him.
Suddenly he heard a pop like a car backfiring, and a hole the size of a nickel appeared in the tile six inches above Skink's face. Then came another bang, another hole.
Joe Winder yelled and dived out of the doorway.
In a way, Carrie Lanier was glad that the Amazing Kingdom was closed. It meant an extra day to work on her singing, which was still rusty, and to design a new costume for Princess Golden Sun.
Driving back toward the mainland, she couldn't wait to tell Joe about all the TV trucks and helicopters at the park's main gate. A reporter from Channel 10 had approached the car and thrust a microphone in her face and asked if she had seen any snakes. Quickly Carrie had improvised a story about a teeming herd – she wasn't sure it was the right term – slithering across County Road 905 near Carysfort. The fellow from Channel 10 had marshaled his camera crew and sprinted off toward the van.
Carrie was impressed by the immediate and dramatic effect of Joe Winder's hoax: everyone was wearing sturdy rubber hip boots.
On the way home, she practiced another song from the show.
You took our whole Indian nation, Stuck us on this reservation. Took away our way of life, The garfish gig and the gator knife. Seminole people! Seminole tribe!
It was a variation of a song called "Indian Reservation," which was recorded by Paul Revere and the Raiders, a band not generally remembered for its biting social commentary. Carrie Lanier thought the new lyrics were insipid, but she liked the simple tune and tom-tom rhythms. She was singing the third verse when she turned into the trailer park and spotted a bloated bodybuilder firing a pistol into the side of her double-wide.
Without hesitating, without even honking the horn, Carrie Lanier took aim.
Pedro Luz was so thoroughly engrossed in assassinating Joe Winder in the shower that he didn't hear the 1979 Buick Electra until it mowed a row of garbage cans ten feet behind him. Pedro Luz started to run but tripped over a garden hose and pitched forward, arms outstretched; it seemed as if he were tumbling in slow motion. When he stopped, the Buick was parked squarely on his left foot.
He lay there for a full minute, bracing for agony that never came: Each of the twenty-six bones in Pedro Luz's foot had been pulverized, yet the only sensation was a mildly annoying throb. Four thousand pounds of ugly Detroit steel on his toes and not even a twinge of pain. Incredible, Pedro thought; the ultimate result of supreme physical conditioning! Or possibly the drugs.
Apparently the driver had abandoned the Buick with the engine running. Steroids and all, Pedro Luz could not budge the sedan by himself. Meanwhile, the gunfire and crash had awakened other denizens of the trailer park; bulldogs yapped, doors slammed, babies wailed, a rooster cackled. Probably somebody had phoned the police.
Pedro Luz probed at the bloody burrito that was now his left foot, protruding beneath a Goodyear white-wall, and made a fateful decision.
What the hell, he mused. Long as I'm feeling no pain.
Dr. Richard Rafferty's assistant called him at home to say there was an emergency, he'd better come right away. When he arrived at the office, the doctor sourly observed a tow truck parked in the handicapped zone. Inside the examining room, a husky one-eyed man with a radio collar lay prone on the steel table.
Dr. Rafferty said: "Is this some kind of joke?"
The couple who had brought the injured man said he had been shot at least twice.
"Then he's got a big problem," said Dr. Rafferty, "because I'm a veterinarian."
The couple seemed to know this already. "He won't go to a regular doctor," Joe Winder explained.
Carrie Lanier added, "We took him to the hospital but he refused to get out of the truck."
Dr. Rafferty's assistant pulled him aside. "I believe I saw a gun," he whispered.
Skink opened his good eye and turned toward the vet. "Richard, you remember me?"
"I'm not sure."
"The night that panther got nailed by the liquor truck."
Dr. Rafferty leaned closer and studied the face. "Lord, yes," he said. "I do remember." It was the same fellow who'd charged into the office with a hundred-pound wildcat in his bare arms. The doctor remembered how the dying panther had clawed bloody striations on the man's neck and shoulders.
Skink said, "You did a fine job, even though we lost the animal."
"We gave it our best."
"How about another try?"
"Look, I don't work on humans."
"I won't tell a soul," Skink said.
"Please," Joe Winder cut in, "you're the only one he'll trust."
Skink's chest heaved, and he let out a groan.
"He's lost some blood," Carrie said.
Dr. Rafferty slipped out of his jacket and told the assistant to prepare a surgical tray. "Oh, we've got plenty of blood," the doctor said, "but unless you're a schnauzer, it won't do you much good."
"Whatever," Skink mumbled, drifting light-headedly. "If you can't fix me up, then put me to sleep. Like you would any old sick dog."