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A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


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THREE

At half past ten Joe Winder went down to The Catacombs, the underground network of service roads that ran beneath the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. It was along these winding cart paths, discreetly out of view from visitors, that the food, merchandise, money and garbage were moved throughout the sprawling amusement park. It was also along these secret subterranean passageways that the kiddie characters traveled, popping up suddenly at strategic locations throughout the Amazing Kingdom and imploring tourists to snap their picture. No customers ("guests" was the designated term) ever were allowed to venture into The Catacombs, lest they catch a glimpse of something that might tarnish their image of the Amazing Kingdom a dog rooting through a dumpster, for example. Or one of Uncle Ely's Elves smoking a joint.

Which is what Joe Winder saw when he got to the bottom of the stairs.

"I'm looking for Robbie Raccoon," he said to the elf, who wasn't particularly jolly or gnome like.

The elf belched blue smoke and asked which Robbie Raccoon he was looking for, since there were three.

"The one who was on duty this afternoon," Winder said. "The one who fought with the rat robbers."

The big elf pointed with the smoldering end of the joint. "Okay, there's a locker room on the west side. Just follow the orange signs." He took another drag. I'd offer you a hit, but I got this nasty chest virus. Hate to pass it along."

"Sure," said Joe Winder. "No problem."

The lockers were at the end of a damp concrete tunnel that smelled of stale laundry and ammonia. Robbie Raccoon was straddling the bench, trying to unzip his head. Winder introduced himself, and explained that he was from the Publicity Department.

"I'm writing a press release about what happened earlier today," he said. "A few quick questions is all."

"Fire away," said Robbie Raccoon. The words came out muffled, from a small opening in the neck of the costume.

Winder said, "I can barely hear you."

With a grunt Robbie Raccoon removed his head, which was as large as a beach ball. Joe Winder was startled by what he saw beneath it: long shimmering blond hair, green eyes and mascara. Robbie Raccoon was a woman.

She said, "If you're going to make a joke, get it over with."

"No, I wasn't."

"Don't think this is my life ambition or anything."

"Of course not," said Joe Winder.

The woman said her name was Carrie Lanier. "And I got my SAG card," she said, still somewhat defensive. "That's the only reason I took this stupid job. I'm going to be an actress."

Mindlessly Winder said, "You've got to start somewhere."

"Darn right."

He waited for Carrie Lanier to remove the rest of the raccoon outfit, but she didn't. He took out his notebook and asked her to describe what had happened at the Rare Animal Pavilion.

Carrie shrugged in an exaggerated way, as if she were still in character. "It was two men, we're talking white trash. One of them has a sledgehammer, and they're both walking real fast. I start to follow, don't ask me why I just had a hunch. All of a sudden the one with the hammer smashes out the glass in one of the exhibits."

"And you tried to stop him?"

"Yeah, I jumped the guy. Climbed on his back. He turned around and clobbered me pretty solid. Thank God for this." Carrie knocked on the crown of the raccoon head, which was propped face-up on the bench. Her fist made a sharp hollow sound. "Chicken wire, plaster and Kevlar," she explained. "They say it's bulletproof."

Joe Winder wrote this down, even though Charles Chelsea would never let him use it in the press release. At the Amazing Kingdom, each publicity announcement was carefully purged of all intriguing details. Winder was having a tough time kicking the habit of taking good notes.

Carrie Lanier said, "He knocked me down pretty hard, but that's about it. There was a tour group from Taiwan, Korea, someplace like that. They helped me off the ground, but by then the two dirtbags were long gone. I could've done without the ambulance ride, but Risk Management said I had to."

"Can I say you suffered a slight head injury?" Joe Winder asked, pen poised.

"No," said Carrie Lanier. "As soon as the X-rays came out negative, they hauled me back to work. I'm fine."

That wouldn't go over well with Charles Chelsea; the vole story was infinitely more dramatic if a park employee had been wounded in the rescue attempt.

"Not even a headache?" Winder persisted.

"Yeah, I've got a headache," Carrie said. "I've always got a headache. Take a whiff of this place." She stood up and yanked on the fluffy striped raccoon tail, which was attached to the rump of the costume by a Velcro patch. The tail made a ripping sound when Carrie took it off. She tossed it in her locker and said, "Why would anyone steal rats?"

"Voles," said Joe Winder.

"The guys who did it, boy, what a pair. Scum of the earth."

Again Winder didn't bother to write this down.

"It's crazy," said Carrie Lanier. She reached beneath her left armpit and found, deep in the fur, another zipper. Carefully she unzipped the costume lengthwise down to her ankle. She did the same on the other side. As she stepped out of the animal outfit, Winder saw that she was wearing only a bra and panties. He tried not to stare.

Carrie hung the costume on a pair of hooks in the locker. She said, "This damn thing weighs a ton, I wish you'd write that down. It's about a hundred twenty degrees inside, too. OSHA made them put in air conditioners, but they're always broken."

Winder stepped closer to examine the raccoon costume, not Carrie Lanier in her bra (which was the type that unhooked in the front; pink with lacy cups).

Winder held up the animal suit and said, "Where's the AC?"

"In the back. Here, look." Carrie showed him. "The batteries last about two hours max, then forget about it. We tried to call the feds and complain what a joke. They haven't been out here since the day Petey Possum died."

"Do I want to hear this story?"

"Heart attack," Carrie Lanier went on. "This was Sessums. Billy Sessums. The very first Petey Possum. He'd been twenty-two years with Disneyland Goofy, Pluto, you name it. Billy was a pro. He taught me plenty."

"So what happened?"

"One of those days. Ninety-two in the shade, one twelve inside the possum suit. The AC went out, and so did Billy." Carrie Lanier paused reflectively. "He was an older fella but still..."

"I'm sorry," said Joe Winder. He put his notebook away. He was starting to feel prickly and claustrophobic.

Carrie said, "You're gonna put my name in the press release?"

"I'm afraid not. It's company policy not to identify the actors who portray the animal characters. Mr. Kingsbury says it would spoil the illusion for the children."

Carrie laughed. "Some illusion. I've had kids grab my boobs, right through the costume. One time there was a Shriner, tried to goose me in the Magic Mansion."

Winder said, "How'd they know you were a woman?"

"That's the scary part." Her eyes flashed mischievously. "What if they didn't know I was a woman? What if they thought I was a real raccoon? What would Mr. Francis X. Kingsbury say about that?" She took a pair of blue jeans out of the locker and squirmed into them. "Anyhow, I don't want my name in any stupid press release," she said. "Not for this place."

"Maybe not, but you did a brave thing," said Winder.

As Carrie buttoned her blouse, she said, "I don't want my folks knowing what I do. You blame me?"

"You make lots of little children happy. What's wrong with that?"

She looked at him evenly. "You're new here, aren't you?"

"Yeah," Joe Winder said.

"My job's crummy, but you know what? I think your job is worse."


Joe Winder wrote the press release in forty minutes. "Theft of Rare Animals Stuns Amazing Kingdom." Ten paragraphs on the crime itself, with a nod to the heroics of Robbie Raccoon ("who barely escaped serious injury"). Three paragraphs of official reaction ("a sad and shocking event") from Francis X. Kingsbury, chairman and president of the park. Three graphs more of scientific background on the blue-tongued mango vole, with a suitable quote from Dr. Will Koocher. A hundred words about the $10,000 reward, and a hundred more announcing new beefed-up security precautions at the park.

Winder put the press release on Charles Chelsea's desk and went home. By the time he called Nina, it was nearly one in the morning. He dialed the number and hoped she would be the one to answer.

"Hello, sugar," Nina said.

"It's me."

"God, I need to talk to a real man," she said. "I had a fantasy that got me so hot. We were on the bow of a sailboat. Making love in the sun. I was on top. Suddenly a terrible storm came "

"Nina, it's me!"

" but instead of hiding in the cabin, we lashed each other to the deck and kept on doing it in the lightning and thunder. Afterwards the warm rain washed the salt off our bodies...."

"For Christ's sake."

"Joe?"

"Yeah, it's me. Why don't you ever listen?"

"Because they don't pay me to listen," Nina said. "They pay me to talk."

"I wish you'd get a normal job."

"Joe, don't start."

Nina was a voice for one of those live dial-a-fantasy telephone services. She worked nights, which put a strain on her personal relationships. Also, every time Joe Winder called, it cost him four bucks. At least the number was easy to remember: 976-COME.

Nina said, "What do you think about the lightning-and-thunder business? I added it to the script myself."

"What was it before something about whales, right?"

"Porpoises, Joe. A school of friendly porpoises leaped and frolicked in the water while we made love. Our animal cries only seemed to arouse them."

Nina had a wonderful voice, Winder had to admit. "I like the new stuff better," he agreed. "The storm idea is good you wrote that yourself?"

"Don't sound so surprised." She asked him how his day had gone, and he told her about the stolen voles.

Nina said, "See? And you thought you were going to be bored."

"I am bored. Most of the time."

"Joe, it's never going to be like the old days."

He wasn't in the mood to hear it. He said, "How's it going with you?"

"Slow," Nina said. "Beverly went home early. It's just me and Miriam."

"Any creeps call in?" Of course creeps had called who else would bother?

"The usual jack-off artists," Nina reported. "They're harmless, Joe, don't worry. I just give a straight read, no moans or groans, and still they get off in about thirty seconds. I had one guy fall asleep afterwards. Snoring like a baby."

Sometimes she talked about her job as if it were a social service, like UNICEF or Meals on Wheels.

"When will you be home?" Winder asked.

The usual, Nina said, meaning four in the morning. "Want me to wake you up?"

"Sure." She had loads of energy, this girl. Winder needed somebody with energy, to help him use up his own. One of the drawbacks of his high-paying bullshit PR job was that it took absolutely nothing out of him, except his pride.

Hurriedly Nina said, "Joe, I got another call waiting."

"Make it short and sweet."

"I'll deal with you later, sailor boy."

And then she hung up.


Winder couldn't sleep, so he put a Warren Zevon tape in the stereo and made himself a runny cheese omelet. He ate in the living room, near the speakers, and sat on a box because there were no chairs in the apartment. The box was filled with old newspaper clippings, his own, as well as plaques and certificates from various journalism awards that he had received over the years. The only important journalism award that wasn't in the box was the single one that impressed anybody the Pulitzer Prize, which Joe Winder had never won.

When he was first interviewed for the publicity-writing job at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, Joe Winder had been asked if he'd ever gotten a Pulitzer. When he answered no, Charles Chelsea had threatened to put him on the polygraph machine.

"I never won," Winder insisted. "You can look it up." And Charles Chelsea did. A Pulitzer on the wall would have disqualified Joe Winder from the PR job just as surely as flunking a urinalysis for drugs,

"We're not in the market for aggressive, hard-bitten newshounds," Chelsea had warned him. "We're looking for writers with a pleasing, easygoing style. We're looking for a certain attitude."

"I'm flexible," Joe Winder had said. "Especially my attitude."

Chelsea had grilled him about the other journalism awards, then about the length of his hair, then about the thin pink scar along his jawline.

Eyeing Winder's face at close range, the publicity man had said, "You look like a bar fighter. Did you get that scar in a fight?"

"Car accident," Joe Winder had lied, figuring what the hell, Chelsea must've known the truth. One phone call to the newspaper, and any number of people would've been happy to drop the dime.

But Chelsea never said another word about the scar, never gave a hint that he'd even picked up the rumor. It was Joe Winder's journalism achievements that seemed to disturb the publicity man, although these concerns were ultimately outweighed by the discovery that Winder had been born and raised in Florida. The Publicity Department at the Amazing Kingdom was desperate for native talent, somebody who understood the mentality of tourists and crackers alike.

The Disney stint hadn't hurt Joe Winder's chances, either; he had worked among the enemy, and learned many of their professional secrets. So Charles Chelsea had set aside his doubts and hired him.

That was two weeks ago. It was still too early for Winder to compare the new job with the one at Disney World. Certainly Disney was slicker and more efficient than the Amazing Kingdom, but it was also more regimented and impersonal. The Disney bureaucracy, and its reach, was awesome. In retrospect Joe Winder wasn't sure how he had lasted as long as he did, six months, before he was caught having sex on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride and fired for not wearing his ID card. Winder felt especially bad that the young woman with whom he'd been dallying, a promising understudy to Cinderella, had also been dismissed over the incident; she for leaving Main Street during Mickey's Birthday Parade.

During the job interview at the Amazing Kingdom, Charles Chelsea had told him: "You work for us, you'd better keep it in your pants, understand?"

"I've got a girlfriend now," Joe Winder had said.

"Don't think you won't be tempted around here."

Winder hadn't been tempted once, until today. Now he was thinking about Carrie Lanier, the fearless beauty inside a seven-foot raccoon suit.

This is what happens when you turn thirty-seven, Winder thought; the libido goes blind with fever. What else could explain his attraction to Nina? Or her attraction to him?

Being a newspaper reporter had left Joe Winder no time for such reckless attachments. Being a flack left him all the time in the world. Now that he was forbidden to write about trouble, he seemed determined to experience it.

He finished his omelet and opened a beer and slumped down on the floor, between the stereo speakers. Something had been nagging at him all afternoon, ever since the insufferable Chelsea had drafted him to help with the robbery crisis. In the push toward his deadline, it was clear to Joe Winder that none of his writing skills had eroded his speed at the keyboard, his facile vocabulary, his smooth sense of pacing and transition. Yet something from the old days was missing.

Curiosity. The most essential and feral of reporters' instincts, the urge to pursue. It was dead. Or dying.

Two strangers had invaded a family theme park in broad daylight and kidnapped a couple of obscure rodents from an animal exhibit. Winder had thoroughly and competently reported the incident, but had made no effort to explore the fascinating possibilities. Having established the what, he had simply ignored the why.

Even by South Florida standards the crime was perverse, and the old Joe Winder would have reveled energetically in its mysteries. The new Joe Winder had merely typed up his thousand words, and gone home.

Just as he was supposed to do.

So this is how it feels, he thought. This is how it feels to sell out. On the stereo, Warren Zevon was singing about going to the Louvre museum and throwing himself against the wall. To Joe Winder it sounded like a pretty good idea.

He closed his eyes tightly and thought: Don't tell me I'm getting used to this goddamn zombie job. Then he thought: Don't tell me I'm getting drunk on one lousy beer.

He crawled across the carpet to the phone, and tried to call Nina at the service. The woman named Miriam answered instead, and launched into a complicated fantasy involving trampolines and silver ankle bracelets. Miriam was struggling so valiantly in broken English ("Ooooh, bebee, chew make me comb so many time!") that Joe Winder didn't have the heart to interrupt.

What the hell, it was only four bucks. He could certainly afford it.


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