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TWENTY-EIGHT

The Amazing Kingdom of Thrills reopened with only a minimal drop in attendance, thanks to a three-for-one ticket promotion that included a free ride on Dickie the Dolphin, whose amorous behavior was now inhibited by four trainers armed with electric stun guns. Francis X. Kingsbury was delighted by the crowds, and emboldened by the fact that many customers actually complained about the absence of wild snakes. Kingsbury regarded it as proof that closing the Amazing Kingdom had been unnecessary, a costly overestimation of the average tourist's brainpower. Obviously the yahoos were more curious than afraid of lethal reptiles. A thrill is a thrill, Kingsbury said.

The two persons forced to sit through this speech were Pedro Luz and Special Agent Ron Donner of the U.S. Marshal Service. Agent Donner had come to notify Francis X. Kingsbury of a possible threat against his life.

"Ho! From who?"

"Elements of organized crime," the marshal said.

"Well, fuck em."

"Excuse me?"

"This is just, I mean really, the word is horseshit!" Kingsbury flapped his arms like a tangerine-colored buzzard. He was dressed for serious golf; even his cleats were orange.

Agent Donner said: "We think it would be wise if you left town for a few weeks."

"Oh, you do? Leave town, like hell I will."

Pedro Luz spun his wheelchair slightly toward the marshal. "Organized crime," he said. "You mean the Mafia?"

"We're taking it very seriously," said Agent Donner, thinking: Who's the freak with the IV bag?

With the proud sweep of a hand, Francis Kingsbury introduced his chief of Security. "He handles everything for the park and so on. Personal affairs, as well. You can say anything in front of him, understand? He's thoroughly reliable."

Pedro Luz casually adjusted the drip valve on the intravenous tube.

The marshal asked, "What happened to your foot?"

"Never mind!" blurted Kingsbury.

"Car accident," Pedro Luz volunteered affably. "I had to chew the damn thing off." He pointed with a swathed, foreshortened index finger. "Right there above the ankle-bone, see?"

"Tough luck," said Agent Donner, thinking: Psycho City.

"It's what animals do," Pedro Luz added, "when they get caught in traps."

Kingsbury clapped his hands nervously. "Hey, hey! Can we get back to the issue, please, this Godfather thing. For the record, I'm not going anyplace."

The marshal said, "We can have you safely in Bozeman, Montana, by tomorrow afternoon."

"What, do I look like fucking Grizzly Adams? Listen to me Montana, don't even joke about something like that."

Pedro Luz said, "Why would the Mafia want to kill Mr. Kingsbury? I don't exactly make the connection." Then his chin dropped, and he appeared to drift off.

Agent Donner said, "I wish you'd consider the offer."

"Two words." Kingsbury held up two fingers as if playing charades. "Summerfest Jubilee. One of our biggest days, receipt-wise, of the whole damn year. Parades, clowns, prizes. We're giving away...I forget, some kinda car."

"And I suppose you need to be here."

"Yeah, damn right. It's my park and my show. And know what else? You can't make me go anywhere. I kept my end of the deal. I'm free and clear of you people."

"You're still on probation," said the marshal. "But you're right, we can't force you to go anyplace. This visit is a courtesy "

"And I appreciate the information. I just don't happen to believe it." But a part of Francis Kingsbury did believe it. What if the men who stole his files had given up on the idea of blackmail? What if the damn burglars had somehow made touch with the Gotti organization? It strained Kingsbury's imagination because they'd seemed like such jittery putzes that night at the house. Yet perhaps he'd misjudged them.

"Where'd you get the tip?" he demanded.

Agent Donner was briefly distracted by the cartoon depiction of rodent fellatio that adorned Kingsbury's forearm. Eventually the marshal looked up and said, "It surfaced during another investigation. I can't go into details."

"But, really, you guys think it's on the level? You think some guineas are coming after me?" Kingsbury struggled to maintain an air of amused skepticism.

Soberly the marshal said, "The FBI is checking it out."

"Well, regardless, I'm not going to Montana. Just thinking about it hurts my mucous membranes I got the world's worst hay fever."

"So your mind is made up."

"Yep," said Kingsbury. "I'm staying put."

"Then let us provide you with protection here at the park. A couple of men, at least."

"Thanks, but no thanks. I got Pedro."

At the mention of his name, Pedro Luz's swollen eyelids parted. He reached up and squeezed the IV bag. Then he tugged the tube out of the needle in his arm, and fitted the end into the corner of his mouth. The sound of energetic sucking filled Francis Kingsbury's office.

Agent Donner was dumbfounded. In a brittle voice he assured Kingsbury that the marshals would be extremely discreet, and would in no way interfere with the Summerfest Jubilee events. Kingsbury, in a tone approaching politeness, declined the offer of bodyguards. The last thing he needed was federal dicks nosing around the Amazing Kingdom.

"Besides, like I mentioned, there's Pedro. He's as tough as they come."

"All right," said Agent Donner, casting his eyes once again on the distended, scarified, cataleptic, polyp-headed mass that was Pedro Luz.

Kingsbury said, "I know what you're thinking but, hell, he's worth ten of yours. Twenty of yours! Any sonofabitch that would bite off his own damn leg you tell me, is that tough or what?"

The marshal rose stiffly to leave. "Tough isn't the word for it," he said.


The trailer fire had left Carrie Lanier with only three possessions: her Buick Electra, the gun she had taken from Joe Winder and the newly retired raccoon suit. The costume and the gun had been stowed in the trunk of the car. Everything else had been destroyed in the blaze.

Molly McNamara offered her a bedroom on the second floor of the old house. "I'd loan you the condo but the cleaners are in this week," Molly said. "It's hard to rent out a place with bloodstains in the carpet."

"What about Joe?" Carrie said, "I'd like him to stay with me."

Molly clucked. "Young lady, I really can't approve. Two unmarried people "

"But under the circumstances," Carrie persisted, "with all that's happened."

"Oh...I suppose it's all right." Molly had a sparkle in her eyes. "I was teasing, darling. Besides, you act as if you're in love."

Carrie said it was a long shot. "We're both very goal-oriented, and very stubborn. I'm not sure we're heading in the same direction." She paused and looked away. "He doesn't seem to fit anywhere."

"You wouldn't want him if he did," Molly said. "The world is full of nice boring young men. The crazy ones are hard to find and harder to keep, but it's worth it."

"Your husband was like that?"

"Yes. My lovers, too."

"But crazy isn't the word for it, is it?"

Molly smiled pensively. "You're a smart cookie."

"Did you know that Joe's father built Seashell Estates?"

"Oh dear," Molly said. A dreadful project: six thousand units on eight hundred acres, plus a golf course. Wiped out an egret rookery. A mangrove estuary. And too late it was discovered "that the fairways were leaching fertilizer and pesticides directly into the waters of Biscayne Bay.

Molly McNamara said, "Those were the bad old days."

"Joe's still upset."

"But it certainly wasn't his fault. He must've been barely a teenager when Seashell was developed."

"He's got a thing about his father," Carrie said.

"Is that what this is all about?"

"He hears bulldozers in his sleep."

Molly said, "It's not as strange as you might imagine. The question is, can you take it? Is this the kind of fellow you want?"

"That's a tough one," Carrie said. "He could easily get himself killed this week."

"Take the blue bedroom at the end of the hall."

"Thank you, Miss McNamara."

"Just one favor," Molly said. "The headboard it's an antique. I found it at a shop in Williamsburg."

"We'll be careful," Carrie promised.

That night they made love on the bare pine floor. Drenched in sweat, they slid like ice cubes across the slick varnished planks. Eventually they wound up wedged headfirst in a corner, where Carrie fell asleep with Joe Winder's earlobe clenched tenderly in her teeth. He was starting to doze himself when he heard Molly's voice in the adjoining bedroom. She was talking sternly to a man who didn't sound like either Skink or the two redneck burglars.

When Winder heard the other door close, he delicately extricated himself from Carrie's bite and lifted her to the bed. Then he wrapped himself in an old quilt and crept into the hall to see who was in the next room.

The last person he expected to find was Agent Billy Hawkins of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Trussed to a straight-backed chair, Hawkins wore someone else's boxer shorts and black nylon socks. A bandage was wadded around one bare thigh, and two strips of hurricane tape crisscrossed his mouth. He reeked of antiseptic.

Joe Winder slipped into the room and twisted the lock behind him. Gingerly he peeled the heavy tape from the agent's face.

"Fancy meeting you here."

"Nice getup," Billy Hawkins remarked. "Would you please untie me?"

"First tell me what happened."

"What does it look like? The old bird shot me."

"Any particular reason?"

"Just get me loose, goddammit."

Winder said, "Not until I hear the story."

Reluctantly, Hawkins told him about Bud Schwartz and the long-distance phone call to Queens and the possible exposure of a federally protected witness.

"Who's the flip?"

"I can't tell you that."

Joe Winder pressed the hurricane tape over Hawkins's lips then fiercely yanked it away. Hawkins yelped. Tears of pain sprang to his eyes. In colorful expletives he offered the opinion that Winder had gone insane.

The excruciating procedure was repeated on one of Billy Hawkins's bare nipples and nearly uprooted a cluster of curly black hairs. "I can do this all night," Winder said. "I'm way past the point of caring."

The agent took a long bitter moment to compose himself. "You could go to prison," he mumbled.

"For assaulting you with adhesive tape? I don't think so." Winder placed one gummy strip along the line of soft hair that trailed southward from Billy Hawkins's navel. The agent gaped helplessly as Winder jerked hard; the tape came off with a sibilant rip.

"You you're a goddamn lunatic!"

"But I'm your only hope. Who's going to believe you were shot and abducted by an elderly widow? And if they should believe it, what would that do to your career?" Joe Winder spread the quilt on the floor and sat cross-legged in front of the hog-tied agent.

"Blaine, Washington," Winder said. "Isn't that the FBI's equivalent of Siberia?"

Hawkins conceded the point silently. The political cost of prosecuting a grandmother and a pair of candyass burglars would be high. The Bureau was hypersensitive to incidents incongruous with the lantern-jawed crime-buster image promoted by J. Edgar Hoover; for an FBI agent to be overpowered by a doddering senior citizen was a disgrace. An immediate transfer to some godforsaken cowtown would be a certainty.

"So what can you do?" Hawkins asked Winder sourly.

"Maybe nothing. Maybe save your skin. Did Molly make you call the office?"

The agent nodded. "At gunpoint. I told them I was taking a couple of sick days."

"They ask about this Mafia thing?"

"I told them it wasn't panning out. Looked like a bullshit shakedown." Hawkins sounded embarrassed. "That's what she made me say. Threatened to shoot me again if I didn't go along with the routine and it didn't sound like a bluff."

"You did the right thing," Joe Winder said. "No sense chancing it." He stood up and rewrapped himself in the quilt. "You'll have to stay like this a while," he told the agent. "It's the only way."

"I don't get it. What's your connection to these crackpots?"

"Long story."

"Winder, don't be a jackass. This isn't a game." Hawkins spoke sternly for a man in his ridiculous predicament. "Somebody could get killed. That's not what you want, is it?"

"Depends. Tell me the name of this precious witness."

"Frankie King."

Joe Winder shrugged. "Never heard of him."

"Moved down from New York after he snitched on some of Gotti's crowd. This was a few years back."

"Swift move. What's he calling himself these days?"

"That I can't possibly tell you."

"Then you're on your own, Billy. Think about it. Your word against Grandma Moses. Picture the headlines: 'Sharpshooter Widow Gunned Me Down, Nude G-Man Claims.' "

Hawkins sagged dispiritedly. He said, The flip's name is Francis Kingsbury. You happy now?"

"Kingsbury?" Joe Winder raised his eyes to the heavens and cackled raucously. "The Mafia is coming down here to whack Mr. X!"

"Hey," Billy Hawkins said, "it's not funny."

But it was very funny to Joe Winder. "Francis X. Kingsbury. Millionaire theme-park developer and real-estate mogul, darling of the Chamber of Commerce, 1988 Rotarian Citizen of the Year. And you're telling me he's really a two-bit jizzbag on the run from the mob?"

Ecstatically, Joe Winder hopped from foot to foot, spinning in a circle and twirling Molly's quilt like a calico cape.

"Oh, Billy boy," he sang, "isn't this a great country!"


They were thirty minutes late to the airport because Danny Pogue insisted on watching the end of a National Geographic television documentary about rhinoceros poachers in Africa.

In the car he couldn't stop talking about the program. "The only reason they kill 'em, see, what they're after is the horns. Just the horns!" He put his fist on his nose to simulate a rhinoceros snout. "In some places they use 'em for sex potions."

"Get off it," said Bud Schwartz.

"No shit. They grind the horns into powder and put it in their tea."

"Does it work?"

"I don't know," Danny Pogue said. The TV didn't say."

"Like, it gives you a super big boner or what?"

"I don't know, Bud, the TV didn't say. They just talked about how much the powder goes for in Hong Kong, stuff like that. Thousands of bucks."

Bud Schwartz said, "You ask me, they left out the most important part of the show. Does it work or not?"

He drove into one of the airport garages and snatched a ticket from the machine. He parked on Level M, as always. "M" for Mother; it was the only way Bud Schwartz could remember how to find his car. He was annoyed that his partner wasn't sharing in the excitement of the moment: they were about to be rich.

"After today, you can retire," Bud Schwartz said. "No more b-and-e's. Man, we should throw us a party tonight."

Danny Pogue said, "I ain't in the mood."

They stepped onto the moving sidewalk and rode in silence to the Delta Airlines concourse. The plane had arrived on time, so the visitor already was waiting outside the gate. As promised, he was carrying a blue umbrella; otherwise Bud Schwartz would never have known that he was the hit man. He stood barely five feet tall and weighed at least two hundred pounds. He had thinning brown hair, small black eyes and skin that was the color of day-old lard. Under a herringbone sport coat he wore a striped polyester shirt, open at the neck, with a braided gold chain. The hit man seemed fond of gold; a bracelet rattled on his wrist when he shook Bud Schwartz's hand.

"Hello," said the burglar.

"You call me Lou." The hit man spoke in a granite baritone that didn't match the soft roly-polyness of his figure.

"Hi, Lou," said Danny Pogue. "I'm Bud's partner."

"How nice for you. Where's the car?" He pointed to a Macy's shopping bag near his feet. "That's yours. Now, where's the car?"

On the drive south, Danny Pogue peeked in the Macy's bag and saw that it was full of cash. Lou was up in the front seat next to Bud Schwartz.

"I wanna do this tomorrow," he was saying. "I gotta get home for my wife's birthday. She's forty." Then he farted loudly and pretended not to hear it.

"Forty? No kidding?" said Bud Schwartz. He had been expecting something quite different in the way of a mob assassin. Perhaps it wasn't fair, but Bud Schwartz was disappointed in Lou's appearance. For Francis Kingsbury's killer, he had envisioned someone taut, snake-eyed and menacing not fat, balding and flatulent.

Just goes to show, thought Bud Schwartz, these days everything's hype. Even the damn Mafia.

From the back seat, Danny Pogue asked: "How're you gonna do it? What kinda gun?"

Lou puffed out his cheeks and said, "Brand X. The fuck do you care, what kinda gun?"

"Danny," Bud Schwartz said, "let's stay out of the man's private business, okay?"

"I didn't mean nothin'."

"You usually don't."

The man named Lou said, "This the neighborhood?"

"We're almost there," said Bud Schwartz.

"I can't get over all these trees," Lou said. "Parts a Jersey look like this. My wife's mother lives in Jersey, a terrific old lady. Seventy-seven years old, she bowls twice a week! In a league!"

Bud Schwartz smiled weakly. Perfect. A hit man who loves his mother-in-law. What next he collects for the United Way?

The burglar said to Lou: "Maybe it's better if you rent a car. For tomorrow, I mean."

"Sure. Usually I do my own driving."

Danny Pogue tapped his partner on the shoulder and said, "Slow down, Bud, it's up here on the right."

Kingsbury's estate was bathed in pale orange lights. Gray sedans with green bubble lights were parked to block both ends of the driveway. Three men sat in each sedan; two more, in security-guard uniforms, were posted at the front door. It was, essentially, the complete private security force of the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills except for Pedro Luz, who was inside the house, his wheelchair parked vigilantly at Francis Kingsbury's bedroom door.

Bud Schwartz drove by slowly. "Look at this shit," he muttered. Once they had passed the house, he put some muscle into the accelerator.

"An army," Lou said, "that's what it was."

Danny Pogue sank low in the back seat. With both hands he clutched the Macy's bag to his chest. "Let's just go," he said. "Bud, let's just haul ass."


TWENTY-SEVEN | NativeTongue | TWENTY-NINE