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TWENTY-SIX

Charles Chelsea decided that "dapper" was too strong a word for Francis X. Kingsbury's appearance; "presentable" was more like it.

Kingsbury wore a gray silk necktie, and a long-sleeved shirt to conceal the lewd mouse tattoo. The reason for the sartorial extravagance was an invitation to address the Tri-County Chamber of Commerce luncheon; Kingsbury intended to use the occasion to unveil a model of the Falcon Trace Golf and Country Club Resort Community.

Impatiently he pointed at Charles Chelsea's belly and said: "So? The damn snake situation let's hear it."

"The worst is over," said Chelsea, with genuine confidence. He had countered Joe Winder's moccasin attack with a publicity blurb announcing that most of the reptiles had turned out to be harmless banded water snakes that only looked like deadly cottonmouths. For reinforcement Chelsea had released videotape of a staged capture, peppered with reassuring comments from a local zoologist.

"By the end of the week, we can send back all those boots," Chelsea said in conclusion.

"All right, that's fine." Kingsbury swiveled toward the window, then back again. Restlessly he kneaded the folds of his neck. "Item Number Two," he said. "This shit with the doctor's widow, is that cleared up yet?"

Here Chelsea faltered, for Joe Winder had stymied him with the Koocher gambit. The publicity man was at a loss for remedies. There was no clever or graceful way to recant a $2.8 million settlement offer for a wrongful death.

Anxiety manifested itself in a clammy deluge from Chelsea's armpits. "Sir, this one's a stumper," he said.

"I don't want to hear it!" Kingsbury clasped his hands in a manner suggesting that he was trying to control a homicidal rage. "What was it, two-point-eight? There's no fucking way what, do I look like Onassis?"

Chelsea's jaws ached from nervous clenching. He pushed onward: "To rescind the offer could have very grave consequences, publicity-wise. The fallout could be ugly."

"Grave consequences? I'll give you grave, Charlie. Two million simoleons outta my goddamn pocket, how's that for grave?"

"Perhaps you should talk to the insurance company."

"Ha!" Kingsbury tossed back his head and snorted insanely. "They just jack the rates, those assholes, every time some putz from Boise stubs his little toe. No way, Charlie, am I talking to those damn insurance people."

In recent years the insurance company had tripled its liability premium for the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. This was due to the unusually high incidence of accidents and injuries on the main attractions; the Wet Willy water slide alone had generated seventeen lawsuits, and out-of-court settlements totaling nearly three-quarters of a million dollars. Even more costly was the freakish malfunction of a mechanical bull at the Wild Bill Hiccup Corral an elderly British tourist had been hospitalized with a 90-degree crimp in his plastic penile implant. The jury's seven-figure verdict had surprised no one.

There was no point rehashing these sad episodes with Francis Kingsbury, for it would only appear that Charles Chelsea was trying to defend the insurance company.

"I think you should be aware," he said, "Mrs. Koocher has retained an attorney."

"Good for her," Kingsbury rumbled. "Let her explain to a judge what the hell her old man was doing, swimming with a damn killer whale in the middle of the night."

Chelsea was now on the precipice of anger himself. "If we drag this out, the Herald and the TV will be all over us. Do we really want a pack of reporters investigating the doctor's death?"

Kingsbury squinted suspiciously. "What are you getting at?"

"I'm simply advising you to take time and think about this. Let me stall the media."

The swiveling started again, back and forth, Kingsbury fidgeting like a hyperactive child. "Two-point-eight-million dollars! Where the hell did that crazy number come from? I guess he couldn't of made it a hundred grand, something do-able."

"Winder? No, sir, he tends to think big."

"He's trying to put me out of business, isn't he?" Francis Kingsbury stopped spinning the chair. He planted his elbows on the desk and dug his polished fingernails into his jowls. "The fucker, this is my theory, the fucker's trying to put me under."

"You might be right," Chelsea admitted.

"What's his you hired him, Charlie what's his angle?"

"I couldn't begin to tell you. For now, my advice is to get the insurance company in touch with Mrs. Koocher's lawyer. Before it blows up even worse."

Kingsbury gave an anguished moan. "Worse? How is that possible?"

"Anything's possible." Chelsea was alarmed by the weariness in his own voice. He wondered if the tempest of bad news would ever abate.

The phone buzzed and Kingsbury plucked it off the hook. He listened, grunted affirmatively and hung up. "Pedro's on his way in," he said. "And it better be good news or I'm gonna can his fat ass."

Pedro Luz did not look like a cheery bundle of good tidings. The wheelchair was one clue. The missing foot was another.

Kingsbury sighed. "Christ, now what?" He saw a whopper of a worker's comp claim coming down the pike.

"An accident," Pedro Luz said, wheeling to a stop in front of Kingsbury's desk. "Hey, it's not so bad."

Chelsea noticed that the security man's face was swollen and mottled like a rotten melon, and that his massive arms had exploded in fresh acne sores.

Kingsbury drummed on a marble paperweight. "So? Let's hear it."

Pedro Luz said, "I shot the bastard."

"Yeah?"

"You better believe it."

Charles Chelsea deftly excused himself, talk of felonies made him uncomfortable. He closed the door softly and nearly sprinted down the hall. He was thinking: Thank God it's finally over. No more dueling flacks.

Kingsbury grilled Pedro Luz on the details of the Joe Winder murder, but the security man edited selectively.

"He was in the shower. I fired eleven times, so I know damn well I hit him. Besides, I heard the shouts."

Kingsbury asked, "How do you know he's dead?"

"There was lots of blood," said Pedro Luz. "And like I told you, I fired almost a dozen goddamn rounds. Later I set the place on fire."

"Yeah?" Kingsbury had seen footage of a trailer blaze on Channel 4; there had been no mention of bodies.

Pedro Luz said, "It went up like a damn torch. One of them cheap mobile homes."

"You're sure the bastard was inside?"

"Far as I know. And the bitch, too."

Francis Kingsbury said, "Which bitch? You're losing me here."

"The dumb bitch he was staying with. The one who ran me over."

Pedro Luz gestured at the bandaged stump on the end of his leg. "That's what she did to me."

The puffy slits made it difficult to read the expression in Pedro Luz's eyes. Kingsbury said, "She hit you with a car?"

"More than that, she ran me down. Parked right on top of me."

"On your foot? Jesus Christ." Kingsbury winced sympathetically.

Pedro Luz said: "Good thing I'm in shape." Self-consciously he folded his bulging arms and spread his hands in a way that covered the pimples.

Kingsbury said, "So what happened?"

"What do you mean? I told you what happened."

"No, I mean with the car on your foot. How'd you get free?"

"Oh, I chewed it off," said Pedro Luz, "right below the ankle."

Kingsbury stared at the stump. He couldn't think of anything to say.

"Animals do it all the time," Pedro Luz explained, "when they get caught in traps."

Francis Kingsbury nodded unconsciously. His eyes roamed the office, searching for a convenient place to throw up.

"The hard part wasn't the pain. The hard part was the reach." Pedro Luz bent down to demonstrate.

"Oh Lord," Kingsbury muttered.

"Like I said, it's a good thing I'm in shape."


At the campsite, Joe Winder told Molly McNamara it was nice to see her again. Molly congratulated Joe for blowing up Kingsbury's bulldozers. Skink thanked Molly for the bottle of Jack Daniels, and briefly related how it had been utilized. Carrie Lanier was introduced to the burglars, whom she instantly recognized as the scruffy vole robbers. Bud Schwartz and Danny Pogue were stunned to learn that Robbie Raccoon was a woman, and apologized for knocking Carrie down during the heist.

The heat was throbbing and the hammock steamed. No breeze stirred off the water. A high brown haze of African dust muted the hues of the broad summer sky. Skink handed out cold sodas and tended the fire; he wore cutoff jeans, the panther collar and a thick white vest of tape and bandages.

"You were lucky," Molly told him. "Guy was aiming high," Skink said. "He assumed I'd be standing up."

As most people do in the shower, thought Joe Winder. "He also assumed that you were me," he said.

"Maybe so." Skink smeared a stick of EDTIAR bug repellent on both arms. Then he sat down under a buttonwood tree to count the mosquitoes biting his legs.

Carrie Lanier told the others about the breakneck ride to the veterinarian. "Dr. Rafferty did a great job. We're lucky he knew somebody over at the Red Cross."

Between insect frenzies, Danny Pogue struggled to follow the conversation. "You got shot?" he said to Skink. "So did me and Bud!"

Sharply, Molly cut in: "It wasn't the same."

"Like hell," mumbled Bud Schwartz miserably. The humidity made him dizzy, and his arms bled from scratching the bugs. In addition, he wasn't thrilled about the lunch menu, which included fox, opossum and rabbit Skink's road-kill bounty from the night before.

Joe Winder was in a lousy mood, too. The sight of Carrie's burned-out trailer haunted him. The fax machine, the Amazing Kingdom stationery, his stereo all lost. Neil Young, melting in the flames. Helpless, helpless, helpless, helpless.

Skink said, "It's time to get organized. Those damn John Deeres are back." He looked at Winder. "Now they've got cops on the site."

"What can we blow up next?" Molly asked. Skink shook his head. "Let's try to be more imaginative."

"All the building permits are in Kingsbury's name," Winder noted. "If he goes down, the project goes under."

Carrie wondered what Joe meant by "goes down."

"You mean, if he dies?"

"Or gets bankrupt," Winder said.

"Or lost," added Skink, glancing up from his mosquito census.

Danny Pogue elbowed Bud Schwartz, who kept his silence. He had spoken again to the butcher in Queens, who had relayed an offer from unnamed friends of the Zubonis: fifty thousand for the whereabouts of Frankie King. Naturally Bud Schwartz had agreed to the deal; now, sitting in the wilderness among these idealistic crusaders, he felt slightly guilty. Maybe he should've ratted on Kingsbury for free.

"Mr. X had a terrible run of luck the last few days," Carrie was saying, "thanks to Joe."

Skink got up to check the campfire. He said, "It's time for a full-court press."

"Each day is precious," agreed Molly McNamara. She dabbed her forehead with a linen handkerchief. "I think we should move against Mr. Kingsbury as soon as possible."

Bud Schwartz crumpled a soda can. "Why don't we hold off a week or so?"

"No." Skink offered him a shank of opossum on a long-handled fork. He said, "Every hour that passes, we lose more of the island."

"Kingsbury's got worse problems than all of us put together," said Bud Schwartz. "If we can just lay back a few days."

Joe Winder urged him to elaborate.

"Tell him, Bud, go on!" Danny Pogue was nearly bursting.

"I wish I could."

Skink fingered the silvery tendrils of his beard. Towering over the burglar, he said, "Son, I'm not fond of surprises."

"This is serious shit." Bud Schwartz was pleading. "You gotta understand heavy people from up North."

Wiping the condensation from her eyeglasses, Molly said, "Bud, what on earth are you talking about?"

Winder leaned toward Carrie and whispered: "This is getting interesting."

"No damn surprises," Skink repeated balefully. "We act in confluence, you understand?"

Reluctantly Bud Schwartz took a bite of fried opossum. He scowled as the warm juices dripped down his chin.

"Is that blood?" asked Danny Pogue.

Skink nodded and said, "Nature's gravy."

Suddenly he turned his face to the sky, peered toward the lemon sun and cursed vehemently. Then he was gone, running barefoot into the bright tangles of the hammock.

The others looked at one another in utter puzzlement.

Joe Winder was the first to stand. "When in Rome," he said, reaching for Carrie's hand.


Humanity's encroachment had obliterated the Florida panther so thoroughly that numerals were assigned to each of the few surviving specimens. In a desperate attempt to save the species, the Game and Fresh Water Commission had embarked on a program of monitoring the far-roaming panthers and tracking their movements by radio telemetry. Over a period of years most of the cats were treed, tranquilized and fitted with durable plastic collars that emitted a regular electronic signal on a frequency of 150 megahertz. The signals could be followed by rangers on the ground or, when the animal was deep in the swamp, by air. Using this system, biologists were able to map the territories traveled by individual cats, chart their mating habits and even locate new litters of kittens. Because the battery-operated collars were activated by motion, it was also possible for rangers to know when a numbered panther was sick or even dead; if a radio collar was inert for more than a few hours, it automatically began sending a distress signal.

No such alarm was transmitted if an animal became abnormally active, but the rangers were expected to notice any strange behavior and react accordingly. For instance, a panther that was spending too much time near populated areas was usually captured and relocated for its own safety; the cats had a long and dismal record of careless prowling along busy highways.

Sergeant Mark Dyerson had retrieved too many dead panthers that had been struck by trucks and automobiles. Recently the ranger had become certain that if something wasn't done soon, Panther 17 would end up the same way. The Game and Fish files indicated that the animal was a seven-year-old male whose original range stretched from Homestead south to Everglades National Park, and west all the way to Card Sound. Because this area was crisscrossed by high-speed roads, the rangers paid special attention to the travels of Number 17.

For months the cat had seemed content to hunker in the deep upland hammocks of North Key Largo, which made sense, considering the dicey crossing to the mainland. But Sergeant Dyerson had grown concerned when, two weeks earlier, radio readings on Number 17 began to show extraordinary, almost unbelievable movement. Intermittent flyovers had pinpointed the cat variously at Florida City, North Key Largo, Homestead, Naranja and South Miami although Sergeant Dyerson believed the latter coordinates were a mistake, probably a malfunction of the radio tracking unit. South Miami was simply an impossible destination; not only was it well out of the panther's range, but the animal would have had to travel at a speed of sixty-five miles an hour to be there when the telemetry said it was. Unlike the cheetah, panthers prefer loping to racing. The only way Number 17 could go that far, Sergeant Dyerson joked to his pilot, is if it took a bus.

Even omitting South Miami from the readings, the cat's travels were inexplicably erratic. The rangers were concerned at the frequency with which Number 17 crossed Card Sound between Key Largo and the mainland. The only two possible routes by water or the long bridge were each fraught with hazards. It was Sergeant Dyerson's hope that Number 17 chose to swim the bay rather than risk the run over the steep concrete span, where the animal stood an excellent chance of getting creamed by a speeding car.

On July 29, the ranger took up the twin Piper to search for the wandering panther. The homing signal didn't come to life until the plane passed low over a trailer park on the outskirts of Homestead. It was not a safe place for humans, much less wild animals, and the panther's presence worried Sergeant Dyerson. Though the tawny cats were seldom visible from the Piper, the ranger half-expected to see Number 17 limping down the center lane of U.S. Highway 1.

Later that afternoon, Sergeant Dyerson went up again; this time he marked the strongest signal in thick cover near Steamboat Creek, on North Key Largo. The ranger couldn't believe it twenty-nine miles in one day! This cat was either manic, or chained to the bumper of a Greyhound.

When Sergeant Dyerson landed in Naples, he asked an electrician to double-check the antenna and receiver of the telemetry unit. Every component tested perfectly.

That night, the ranger phoned his supervisor in Tallahassee and reviewed the recent radio data on Number 17. The supervisor agreed that he'd never heard of a panther moving such a great distance, so fast.

"Send me a capture team as soon as possible," Sergeant Dyerson said. "I'm gonna dart this sonofabitch and find out what's what."

The twin Piper made three dives over the campsite. Joe Winder and Carrie Lanier watched from the bank of Steamboat Creek.

"Game and Fish," Winder said, "just what we need."

"What do we do?" Carrie asked.

"Follow the water."

They didn't get far. A tall uniformed man materialized at the edge of the tree line. He carried an odd small-bore rifle that looked like a toy. When he motioned to Joe and Carrie, they obediently followed him through the hammock out to the road. Molly McNamara and the two burglars already had been rounded up; another ranger, with a clipboard, was questioning them. There was no sign of Skink.

Sergeant Mark Dyerson introduced himself and asked to see some identification. Joe Winder and Carrie Lanier showed him their driver's licenses. The ranger was copying down their names when a gaunt old cracker, pulled by three lean hounds, came out of the woods.

"Any luck?" Sergeant Dyerson asked.

"Nope," said the tracker. "And I lost me a dog."

"Maybe the panther got him."

"They ain't no panther out there."

"Hell, Jackson, the radio don't lie." The ranger turned back to Joe Winder and Carrie Lanier. "And I suppose you're bird-watchers, too. Just like Mrs. McNamara and her friends."

Beautiful, thought Winder. We're bird-watchers now. Playing along, Carrie informed the ranger they were following a pair of nesting kestrels.

"No kidding?" Sergeant Dyerson said. "I've never met a birder who didn't carry binoculars and here I get five of 'em, all at one time."

"We're thinking of forming a club," said Carrie. Joe Winder bit his lip and looked away. Molly's Cadillac took off, eastbound a crown of white hair behind the wheel, the burglars slouched in the back seat.

"I'll give you this much," the ranger said, "you sure don't look like poachers." A Florida Highway Patrol car pulled up and parked beside Sergeant Dyerson's Jeep. A muscular black trooper got out and tipped his Stetson at the ranger.

"Whatcha know?" the trooper said affably.

"Tracking a panther. These folks got in the way."

"A panther? You got to be kidding."

The trooper's laughter boomed. "I've been driving this stretch for three years and never saw a bobcat, much less a panther."

"They're very secretive," Sergeant Dyerson said. "You wouldn't necessarily spot them." He wasn't in the mood for a nature lesson. He turned to the old tracker and told him to run the frigging dogs one more time.

"Ain't no point."

"Humor me," said Sergeant Dyerson. "Come on, let's go find your other hound."

Once the wildlife officers were gone, the trooper's easygoing smile dissolved. "You folks need a lift."

"No, thanks," Joe Winder said.

"It wasn't a question, friend." The trooper opened the back door of the cruiser, and motioned them inside.


TWENTY-FIVE | NativeTongue | TWENTY-SEVEN