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THIRTY-ONE

Joe Winder held Carrie in his arms and wondered why the women he loved were always a step or two ahead of him.

"So what are you planning?" he asked.

She stirred but didn't answer. Her cheek felt silky and warm against his chest. When would he ever learn to shut up and enjoy the moment?

"Carrie, I know you're not asleep."

Her eyes opened. Even in the darkness he could feel the liquid stare. "You're the only man I've ever been with," she said, "who insists on talking afterward."

"You inspire me, that's all."

"Aren't you exhausted?" She raised her head. "Was I hallucinating, or did we just fuck our brains out?"

Winder said, "I'm nervous as hell. I've been rehearsing it all in my head."

She told him to stop worrying and go to sleep. "What's the worst thing that could happen?"

"Jail is a distinct possibility. Death is another."

Carrie turned on her belly and slid between his legs. Then she propped her elbows on his rib cage, and rested her chin on her hands.

"What are you smiling at?" Winder said.

"It's all going to work out. I've got faith in you."

"But you're planning something, just the same."

"Joe, it might be my only chance."

"At what?"

"Singing. I mean really singing. Am I hurting you?"

"Oh, no, you're light as a feather."

"You asshole," she giggled, and began to tickle him ferociously. Winder locked his legs around her thighs and flipped her over in the sheets.

They were kissing when he felt compelled to pull back and say, "I'm sorry I dragged you into this mess."

"What mess? And, besides, you're doing the honest thing. Even if it's slightly mad."

"You're speaking of the major felonies?"

"Of course," Carrie said. "But your motives are absolutely pure and unassailable. I'll be cheering for you, Joe."

"Clinical insanity isn't out of the question," he said. "Just thinking about Kingsbury and that damn golf course, I get noises inside my skull."

"What kind of noises?"

"Hydraulic-type noises. Like the crusher on a garbage truck."

Carrie looked concerned, and he couldn't blame her. "It goes back to my old man," he said.

"Don't think about it so much, Joe."

"I'd feel better if the governor were here. Just knowing I wasn't the only lunatic "

"I had a dream about him," she said quietly. "I dreamed he broke into prison and killed that guy what's his name?"

"Mark Chapman," said Winder. "Mark David Chapman."

She heard sadness in the reply, sadness because she didn't remember the details. "Joe, I was only fourteen when it happened."

"You're right."

"Besides, I've always been lousy with names. Oswald, Sirhan, Hinkley it's easy to lose track of these idiots."

"Sure is," Winder agreed.

Carrie tenderly laced her hands on the back of his neck. "Everything's going to be fine. And no, you're not crazy. A little zealous is all."

"It's not a bad plan," he said.

"Joe, it's a terrific plan."

"And if all goes well, you'll still have your job."

"No, I don't think so. I'm not much of a Seminole go-go dancer."

Now it was his turn to smile. "I take it there may be some last-minute changes in the musical program."

"Quite possibly," Carrie said.

He kissed her softly on the forehead. "I'll be cheering for you, too."

"I know you will, Joe."

As far as Bud Schwartz was concerned, he'd rather be in jail than in a hospital. Practically everyone he ever knew who died his mother, his brother, his uncles, his first probation officer had died in hospital beds. In fact, Bud Schwartz couldn't think of a single person who'd come out of a hospital in better shape than when they'd gone in.

"What about babies?" Danny Pogue said.

"Babies don't count."

"What about your boy? Mike, Jr., wasn't he borned in a hospital?"

"Matter of fact, no. It was the back of a Bronco. And his name is Bud, Jr., like I told you." Bud Schwartz rolled down the window and tried to spit the toothpick from the corner of his mouth. It landed on his arm. "A hospital's the last place for a sick person to go," he said.

"You think she'll die there?"

"No. I don't wanna set foot in the place is all."

"Jesus, you're a cold shit."

Bud Schwartz was startled by his partner's anger. Out of pure guilt he relented and agreed to go, but only for a few minutes. Danny Pogue seemed satisfied. "Let's get some roses on the way."

"Fine. A lovely gesture."

"Hey, it'll mean a lot to her."

"Danny, this is the same woman who shot us. And you're talking flowers."

Molly McNamara had driven herself to Baptist Hospital after experiencing mild chest pains. She had a private room with a gorgeous view of a parking deck.

When he saw her shriveled in the bed, Danny Pogue gulped desperately to suppress the tears. Bud Schwartz also was jarred by the sight she looked strikingly pallid and frail. And small. He'd never thought of Molly McNamara as a small woman, but that's how she appeared in the hospital: small and caved-in. Maybe because all that glorious white hair was stuffed under a paper cap.

"The flowers are splendid," she said, lifting the thin plastic tube that fed extra oxygen to her nostrils.

Danny Pogue positioned the vase on the bedstand, next to the telephone. "American Beauty roses," he said.

"So I see."

The burglars stood on opposite sides of the bed. Molly reached out and held their hands.

She said, "A touch of angina, that's all. I'll be as good as new in a few days."

Danny Pogue wondered if angina was contagious; it sounded faintly sexual. "The house is fine," he said. "The disposal jammed this morning, but I fixed it myself."

"A spatula got stuck," Bud Schwartz added. "Don't ask how."

Molly said, "How is Agent Hawkins?"

"Same as ever."

"Are you feeding him?"

"Three times a day, just like you told us."

"Are his spirits improved?"

"Hard to tell," Bud Schwartz said. "He don't talk much with all that tape on his face."

"I heard about the golfer being shot," said Molly. "Mr. Kingsbury's had quite a run of bad luck, wouldn't you say?" She asked the question with a trace of a smile. Danny Pogue glanced down at his shoes.

To change the subject, Bud Schwartz asked if there was a cafeteria in the hospital. "I could sure use a Coke."

"Make that two," said Danny Pogue. "And a lemonade for Molly."

"Yes, that would hit the spot. Or maybe a ginger ale, something carbonated." She patted Danny Pogue's hand. Again he looked as if he were about to weep.


In the elevator Bud Schwartz couldn't shake the vision of the old woman sunken in bed. It was all Kingsbury's fault Molly hadn't felt right since those bastards beat her up at the condo. That one of them had been gunned down later by a baboon was only a partial consolation; the other goon, the one with nine fingertips, was still loose. Joe Winder had said don't worry, they'll all pay but what did Winder know about the law of the street? He was a writer, for Chrissakes. A goddamn dreamer. Bud Schwartz had agreed to help but he couldn't pretend to share Winder's optimism. As a lifelong criminal, he knew for a fact that the bad guys seldom get what they deserve. More often they just plain get away, even assholes who beat up old ladies.

Bud Schwartz was so preoccupied that he got off on the wrong floor and found himself standing amidst throngs of cooing relatives at the window of the nursery. He couldn't believe the number of newborn babies it baffled him, left him muttering while others clucked and pointed and sighed. In a world turning to shit, why were so many people still having children? Maybe it was a fad, like CB radios and Cabbage Patch dolls. Or maybe these men and women didn't understand the full implications of reproduction.

More victims, thought Bud Schwartz, the last damn thing we need. He gazed at the rows of sleeping infants, crinkly and squinty-eyed and blissfully innocent, and silently foretold their future. They would grow up to have automobiles and houses and apartments that would all, eventually, be burglarized by lowlifes such as himself.

When Bud Schwartz returned to Molly McNamara's room, he sensed he was interrupting something private. Danny Pogue, who had been talking in a low voice, became silent at the sight of his partner.

Molly thanked Bud Schwartz for the cup of ginger ale. "Danny's got something to tell you," she said.

"Yeah?"

"I must admit," Molly said, "he left me speechless."

"So let's hear it already."

Danny Pogue lifted his chin and thrust out his bony chest. "I decided to give my share of the money to Molly."

"Not to me personally," she interjected. "To the Mothers of Wilderness."

"And the Wildlife Rescue Corps!"

"Unofficially, yes," she said.

"The mob money," Danny Pogue explained.

Bud Schwartz didn't know whether to laugh or scream. "Twenty-five grand? You're just givin' it away?"

Molly beamed. "Isn't that a magnificent gesture?"

"Oh, magnificent," said Bud Schwartz. Magnificently stupid.

Danny Pogue picked up on his partner's sarcasm and tried to mount a defense. He said, "It's just somethin' I wanted to do, okay?"

"Fine by me."

Molly said, "It automatically makes him a Golden Lifetime Charter Member!"

"It also automatically makes him broke."

"Come on," Danny Pogue said, "it's for a good cause."

Bud Schwartz's eyes narrowed. "Don't even think about asking."

"Danny, he's right," said Molly. "It's not fair to pressure a friend."

Warily Bud Schwartz scanned Molly's bed sheets for any lumps that might reveal the outline of a pistol. He said, "Look, I wanna go straight. That money's my future."

Danny Pogue rolled his eyes and snorted. "Cut the bull I mean, don't kid yourself. All we're ever gonna be is thieves."

"Now there's a happy thought. That's what I mean about you and your fucking attitude."

To Danny Pogue's relief, Molly barely flinched at the profane adjective. She said, "Bud, I respect your ambitions. I really do."

But Danny Pogue wasn't finished whining. "Man, at least can't you spare something?"

For several moments the only sound was the muted whistle of Molly's oxygen machine. Finally she said, in a voice creaky with fatigue, "Even a small donation would be appreciated."

Bud Schwartz ground his molars. "How does a grand sound? Is that all right?" Christ, he must be insane. One thousand dollars to a bunch of blue-haired bunny huggers!

Molly McNamara smiled kindly. Danny Pogue exuberantly chucked him on the shoulder.

Bud Schwartz said, "Why don't I feel wonderful about this?"

"You will," Molly replied, "someday."


Among the men hired by Pedro Luz as security officers was Diamond J. Love, Diamond being his given name and the "J" standing for Jesus. As was true with most of the guards at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills, Diamond J. Love's personal history was investigated with only enough diligence to determine the absence of outstanding felony warrants. It was a foregone conclusion that Diamond J. Love's career in law enforcement had been derailed by unpleasant circumstances; there was no other logical reason for applying as a private security guard at a theme park.

Initially, Diamond J. Love was apprehensive about his employment chances at the Amazing Kingdom. He knew that Disney World and other family resorts were scrupulous about hiring clean-cut, enthusiastic, All-American types; Diamond J. Love was worried because in all ways he defied the image, but he need not have worried. Nobody from the Amazing Kingdom bothered to check with previous employers, such as the New York City Police Department, to inquire about allegations of bribery, moral turpitude, substance abuse, witness tampering and the unnecessary use of deadly force, to wit, the pistol-whipping of a young man suspected of shoplifting a bag of cheese-flavored Doritos.

Diamond J. Love was elated to be hired for the security force at the Amazing Kingdom, and pleased to find himself surrounded with colleagues of similarly checkered backgrounds. On slow days, when they weren't breaking into the RVs of tourists, they'd sit around and swap stories about the old police days tales of stacking the civil-service boards to beat a brutality rap; perjuring themselves silly before grand juries; rounding up hookers on phony vice sweeps just to cop a free hummer; switching kilos of baking soda for cocaine in the evidence rooms. Diamond J. Love enjoyed these bull sessions, and he enjoyed his job. For the most part.

The only area of concern was the boss himself, a monster steroid freak whose combustible mood swings had prompted several of his own officers to leave their holsters permanently unsnapped, just in case. Some days Pedro Luz was reasonable and coherent, other days he was a drooling psycho. The news that he had chewed off his own foot only heightened the anxiety level on the security squad; even the potheads were getting jumpy.

Which is why Diamond J. Love did not wish to be late for work on this very important morning, and why he reacted with exceptionally scathing impudence to the mild-mannered inquiry of a black state trooper who had pulled over his car on County Road 905.

"May I see your driver's license, please?"

"Get serious, Uncle Ben."

From there it went downhill. The trooper was singularly unimpressed by Diamond J. Love's expired NYPD police badge; nor was he particularly understanding on the issue of Diamond J. Love's outdated New York driver's license. Or the fact that, according to some computer, the serial numbers on Diamond J. Love's Camaro matched precisely those of a Camaro stolen eight months earlier in New Smyrna Beach.

"That's bullshit," suggested Diamond J. Love.

"Please get out of the car," the trooper said.

At which point Diamond J. Love attempted to speed away, and instead felt himself dragged by the collar through the window and deposited face-first on the macadam. Upon regaining consciousness, Diamond J. Love discovered Plasticuffs cinched painfully to his wrists and ankles. He further was surprised to see that he shared his predicament with several other security guards, who had apparently encountered the highway patrol on the pre-dawn journey to the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. There sat Ossie Cano, former Seattle robbery detective-turned-fence; William Z. Ames, former Orlando patrolman-turned-pornographer; Neal "Bart" Bartkowski, former sergeant with the Atlanta police, currently appealing a federal conviction for tax evasion.

"The hell's going on here?" demanded Diamond J. Love.

"Roadblock," Cano replied.

"A one-man roadblock?"

"I heard him radio for backup."

"But still," said Diamond J. Love. "One guy?"

By sunrise there were nine of them handcuffed or otherwise detained, a row of sullen penguins lined up along County Road 905. Basically it was the Amazing Kingdom's entire security force, except for Pedro Luz and one other guard, who had spent the night at the amusement park.

Trooper Jim Tile was impressed by the accuracy of Joe Winder's intelligence, particularly the make and license numbers of the guards' personal cars information pilfered by Carrie Lanier from the files of the Personnel Department. Jim Tile was also impressed that not a single one of the guards had a clean record; to a man there arose problems with driver's licenses, expired registration stickers, doctored title certificates or unpaid traffic tickets. Each of the nine attempted to slide out of the road check by flashing outdated police ID "badging," in cop vernacular. Two of the nine had offered Jim Tile a whispered inducement of either cash or narcotics; three others had sealed their fate by making racial remarks. All had been disarmed and handcuffed so swiftly, and with such force, that physical resistance had been impossible.

When the van from the Monroe County Sheriff's Office arrived, the deputy's eyes swept from Jim Tile to the cursing horde of prisoners and back again.

The deputy said, "Jimmy, you do this all by yourself?"

"One at a time," the trooper answered. "A road check, that's all."

"I know some of these boys."

"Figured you might."

"We lookin' at anything serious?"

"We're considering it."

From the end of the line came an outcry from Diamond J. Love: "Dwight, you gonna let this nigger get away with it?"

Jim Tile gave no indication of hearing the remark. The deputy named Dwight did, however. "Damndest thing," he said in a hearty voice. "The air-conditioning broke down in the paddy wagon. Just now happened."

The trooper said, "What a shame."

"Gonna be a long trip back to the substation."

"Probably gets hot as hell inside that van."

"Like an oven," Dwight agreed with a wink.

"Fuck you!" shouted Diamond J. Love. "Fuck the both of you."


The phone bleeped in Charles Chelsea's apartment at seven-fifteen. It might as well have been a bomb.

"That fucking Pedro, I can't find him!" Who else but Francis X. Kingsbury.

"Have you tried the gym?" Chelsea said foggily.

"I tried everywhere, hell, you name it. And there's no guards! I waited and waited, finally said fuck it and drove myself to work." He was on the speaker phone, hollering as he stormed around the office.

"The security men never showed up?"

"Wake up, dicklick! I'm alone, comprende? No Pedro, no guards, nada."

Dicklick? Charles Chelsea sat up in bed and shook his head like a spaniel. Do I really deserve to be called a dicklick? Is that what I get for all my loyalty?

Kingsbury continued to fulminate: "So where in the name of Christ Almighty is everybody? Today of all days is there something you're not telling me, Charlie?"

"I haven't heard a thing, sir. Let me check into it."

"You do that!" And he was gone.

Chelsea dragged himself to the kitchen and fine-tuned the coffee-maker. In less than two hours, some lucky customer would breach the turnstiles at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills and be proclaimed the Five-Millionth Visitor. Officially, at least. Chelsea was fairly certain that at least one enterprising journalist would take the time to add up the park's true attendance figures and expose the promotion for the hoax that it was. The scene was set for a historic publicity disaster; already the national newsmagazines and out-of-state papers were snooping around, waiting for poor Jake Harp to expire. In recent days Chelsea's office had been deluged with applications for media credentials from publications that previously had displayed no interest in covering the Amazing Kingdom's Summerfest Jubilee. Chelsea wasn't naive enough to believe that the New York Daily News was seriously interested in a feature profile of the engineer who'd designed the Wet Willy water slide; no, their presence was explained by pure rampant bloodlust. The kidnapped mango voles, the dead scientist, the dead Orky, the nearly dead Jake Harp, flaming bulldozers, phony snake invasions, exploding cement trucks an irresistible convergence of violence, mayhem and mortality!

Charles Chelsea understood that the dispatches soon to be filed from the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills wouldn't be bright or warm or fluffy. They would be dark and ominous and chilling. They would describe a screaming rupture of the civil order, a culture in terminal moral hemorrhage.

And this would almost certainly have a negative effect on tourism. Oh well, Chelsea thought, I gave it my best.

He foraged in the refrigerator, unearthed a stale bagel and began gnawing dauntlessly. Hearing a knock at the door, he assumed that the pathologically impatient Kingsbury had sent a car for him.

"Just a second!" Chelsea called, and went to put on a robe.

When he opened the door, he faced the immutable, bewhiskered grin of Robbie Raccoon.

Who was holding, in his three-fingered polyester paw, a gun.

Which was pointed at Charles Chelsea's throat.

"What's this?" croaked the publicity man.

"Show time," said Joe Winder.


THIRTY | NativeTongue | THIRTY-TWO