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"First things first," Joe Winder said. "Who killed Will Koocher?"

Francis X. Kingsbury was rolling a shiny new Titleist from hand to hand across the top of his desk. The brassy strains of a marching band rose from the street below; the Summerfest Jubilee was in full swing.

"This Koocher," Kingsbury said, "he was threatening to go public about the voles. Pangs of conscience, whatever. So what I did, I told that fucking Pedro to go talk sense with the boy. See, it would've been a disaster and Charlie'll back me up on this a goddamn mess if it came out the voles were fake. Especially after the stupid things got stolen talk about embarrassing."

Winder said, "So the answer to the question is Pedro. That's who committed the murder."

Kingsbury smothered his nose with a handkerchief and snuffled like a boar. "Damn hay fever!" The handkerchief puckered with each breath. "Far as I'm concerned, Koocher drowned in the Orky tank. Plain and simple. Case closed."

"But everyone knew the truth."

"No!" Chelsea protested. "I swear to God, Joey."

"Tell me about the blue-tongued mango voles," said Joe Winder. "Whose clever idea was that?"

From behind the veil of the soggy hanky, Kingsbury said: "I figured wouldn't it be fantastic if the Amazing Kingdom had an animal we could save. Like Disney tried to do with the dusky sparrow, only I was thinking in terms of a panda bear. People, I've seen this, they go fucking nuts for pandas. Only come to find out it's too hot down here, they'd probably croak in the sun.

"So I call this connection I got, this old friend, and I ask her what's endangered in Florida and she says all the good ones are taken the panthers and manatees and so forth. She says it'd be better to come up with an animal nobody else had or even knew about. She says we might even get a government grant, which it turns out we did. Two hundred grand!"

Chelsea tried to act appalled; he even made a sound like a gasp. Impatiently, Winder said, "Charlie, this might come as a shock, but I don't care how much you knew and how much you didn't. For the purposes of settling this matter, you've become superfluous. Now show Mr. Kingsbury what we've prepared."

From an inside pocket Chelsea withdrew a folded sheet of Amazing Kingdom stationery. He handed it across the desk to Francis X. Kingsbury, who set aside both the handkerchief and the golf ball in order to read.

"It's a press release," Chelsea said.

"I see what it is. Horseshit is what it is." Kingsbury scanned it several times, including once from the bottom up. His mouth moved in twitchy circles, like a mule chewing a carrot.

"You ought to consider it," Winder advised him, "if you want to stay out of jail."

"Oh, so now it's blackmail?"

"No, sir, it's the cold fucking hand of fate."

Nervously Kingsbury fingered the bridge of his nose. "The hell is your angle, son?"

"You arranged an elaborate scientific fraud for the purposes of profit. An ingenious fraud, to be sure, but a felony nonetheless. Two hundred thousand is just about enough to interest the U.S. Attorney's Office."

Kingsbury shrugged in mockery. "Is that, what, like the end of the world?"

"I forgot," Winder said, "you're an expert on indictments. Aren't you, Frankie?"

Kingsbury turned color.

"Frankie King," said Winder. That's your real name, in case you don't remember."

Kingsbury shrank into the chair. Winder turned to Charles Chelsea and said, "I think somebody's finally in the mood to talk."

"Can I leave?"

"Certainly, Charlie. And thanks for a terrific job on the publicity release."

"Yeah, right."

"I mean it," Winder said. "It's seamless."

Chelsea eyed him warily. "You're just being sarcastic."

"No, it was perfect. You've got a definite flair."

"Thanks, Joe. And I mean it, too."

The rescue of Francis Kingsbury was further delayed when a disturbance broke out near the front gate of the Amazing Kingdom; a tense and potentially violent dispute over the distribution of prizes, specifically a Nissan 300-Z.

The security-guard uniform is what gave Pedro Luz away. As he crutched toward Kingsbury's office, he was spotted and intercepted by a flying wedge of disgruntled customers. Something about the Summerfest contest being rigged. Pedro Luz insisted he didn't know about any damn contest, but the customers were loud and insistent. They led the security man back to the stage, where a short plump tourist named Rossiter had just been presented the keys to the sleek new sports car. Draped around Mr. Rossiter's neck was a shiny streamer that said: "OUR FIVE-MILLIONTH SPECIAL GUEST!" In response to questions from a tuxedoed emcee, Mr. Rossiter said he was visiting the Amazing Kingdom with his wife and mother-in-law. He said it was only his second trip to Florida.

Mr. Rossiter gave the car keys to his wife, who squeezed her torso into the driver's seat and happily posed for pictures. Several persons in the crowd began to hiss and boo. Somebody threw a cup of frozen yogurt, which splattered against one of the car's wire wheels.

This was too much for Pedro Luz's jangled, hormone-flooded sensory receptors. He grabbed the microphone from the emcee and said, "Next person that throws food, I break their fucking spine."

Instantly a lull came over the mob. Pedro Luz said, "Now somebody explain what's going on."

At first no one spoke up, but there was a good bit of whispering about the bloody purple knots on the security chief's forehead. Finally a man in the crowd pointed at the Rossiters and shouted, "They cheated, that's what!"

Another male voice: "He cut in line!"

Pedro Luz said, "Jesus, I can't believe you people."

He turned to the Rossiters. "Is it true? Did you cut in line?"

"No, Officer," Mr. Rossiter answered. "We got here first, fair and square."

Mrs. Rossiter popped her head from the car and said, "They're just a bunch of sore losers." Mrs. Rossiter's mother, a stubby woman wearing sandals and a Petey Possum T-shirt, said she'd never seen such rude people in all her life.

Pedro Luz didn't know what to do next; for one pleasantly deranged moment, he considered throwing the Rossiters off the stage and claiming the 300-Z for himself. Daring anyone to try to take it away from him. Then Charles Chelsea materialized and Pedro Luz gratefully surrendered the microphone. His ears buzzed and his head clanged and all he really wanted to do was limp to the gymnasium and pump some iron.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Chelsea intoned, "please settle down." He looked smooth and confident in a crisp blue oxford shirt and a wine-colored tie. He looked as if he could talk his way out of practically anything.

"I've reviewed the tapes from our security cameras," Chelsea told the crowd, "and whether you like it or not, Mr. Rossiter and his family were clearly the first ones through the turnstiles this morning "

"But he threatened me!" yelled a teenager in the crowd. "I was here first but he said he'd kill me!"

A middle-aged woman in a straw Orky hat hollered: "Me, too! And I was ahead of that kid "

The crowd surged toward the stage until Pedro Luz drew his revolver and aimed it toward the sky. Seeing the gun, the tourists grew quiet and rippled back a few steps.

"Thank you," Chelsea said to Pedro Luz.

"I got an emergency."

"You can go now. I'll be fine."

"You need a gun?"

"No," said Chelsea, "but thanks just the same."

"You got something against fun."

Francis Kingsbury made it an indictment. "What, you got something against little children? Little cutey pies having a good time?"

Joe Winder said: "You can keep the park, Frankie. The park is already built. It's the golf resort that's eighty-sixed, as of today."

"Oh, ho," said Kingsbury. "So you got something against golf?"

"That's the deal. Take it or leave it."

"You think you can scare me? Hell, I got gangsters shooting at me. Professionals." Kingsbury cut loose an enormous sneeze, and promptly plugged his nostrils with the handkerchief.

Winder said, "I was hoping to appeal to the pragmatic side of your nature."

"Listen, I know how to handle this situation from up North. The way to handle it is, I cut the wop bastards in. The Zubonis, I'm talking about. I cut 'em in on Falcon Trace, you'd be surprised how fast they let bygones be bygones. You watch what good friends we are once I start using Zuboni roofers, Zuboni drywall, Zuboni plumbing." Kingsbury looked positively triumphant. "Blackmail, my ass. The fuck are you going to blackmail me with now?"

"I believe you misunderstood the offer," Joe Winder said. "I'm not planning to go to the mob. I'm planning to go to the media."

Defiantly Kingsbury snatched the hanky from his nose. "Jesus, you're pissing me off." He picked up the phone and commanded the operator to connect him with Security. Joe Winder took two steps toward the desk, raised his paw and shot the telephone console to pieces.

Impressed, Kingsbury probed at the tangle of wires and broken plastic. "Goddamn lunatic," he said.

Winder sat down and tucked the gun into the furry folds of the costume. "Think in terms of headlines," he said. "Imagine what'll happen when the newspapers find out the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills is run by a Mafia snitch. You'll be famous, Frankie. Wouldn't you love to be interviewed by Connie Chung?"

"Let me just say, fuck you."

Winder frowned. "Don't make me shoot up more office equipment. Stop and consider the facts. You obtained the bank notes and financing for Falcon Trace under false pretenses; to wit, using a false name and phony credit references. Ditto on your construction permits. Ditto on your performance bond. Once the money boys find out who you really are, once they read about it on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, not only is Falcon Trace dead, you can look forward to spending the rest of your natural life at the courthouse, getting your fat ass sued off. Everybody'll want a piece, Frankie. We're talking cluster-fuck."

He now had Francis X. Kingsbury's undivided attention. "And last but not least," Winder said, "is the criminal situation. If I'm not mistaken, you're still on probation."

"Yeah, so?"

"So the terms of probation strictly prohibit consorting with known felons and other unsavory dirtbags. However, a review of your Security Department indicates you're not only consorting with known criminals, you've surrounded yourself with them."

"This isn't Orlando," Kingsbury said. "Down here it's not so. easy to get good help. If I was as strict as Disney, I'd have nobody working for me. What, maybe altar boys? Mormons and Brownie Scouts? This is Miami, for Chrissakes, I got a serious recruiting problem here."

"Nonetheless," Joe Winder said, "you've gone out of your way to dredge up extremely primitive life-forms."

"What's wrong with giving a guy a second chance?" Kingsbury paused for a second, then said, "I'm the first to admit, hell, Pedro was a bad choice. I didn't know about the damn drugs." Speaking of Pedro, he thought, where the hell is he?

"What's done is done," Winder said. He fanned himself with his spare paw, it was wretchedly hot inside the costume. "Frankie, this is a matter for you and the probation bureau. Between us boys, I wouldn't be surprised if they packed you off to Eglin for six or eight months. You do play tennis, don't you?"

The haughtiness ebbed from Kingsbury's face. Pensively he traced a pudgy finger along the lines of his infamous rodent tattoo. "Winder, what exactly is your problem?"

"The problem is you're mutilating a fine chunk of island so a bunch of rich people have a warm place to park their butts in the winter. You couldn't have picked a worse location, Frankie, the last green patch of the Keys. You're bulldozing next door to a national wildlife refuge. And offshore, in that magnificent ocean, is the only living coral reef in North America. I believe that's where you intended to flush your toilets "

"No!" Kingsbury snapped. "We'll have deep-well sewage injection. High-tech facilities no runoff, no outfall."

"Imagine," Winder mused, "the shit of millionaires dappling our azure waters."

Kingsbury reddened and clenched his fists. "If I go along with this deal, what, it's some major victory for the environment? You think the ghost of Henry Fucking Thoreau is gonna pin a medal or some such goddamn thing on your chest?"

Joe Winder smiled at the thought. "I've got no illusions," he said. "One less golf course is one less golf course. I'll settle for that."

"The lots, Jesus, they're worth millions. That's what this goddamn piece of paper'll cost me."

"I'll settle for that, too."

Kingsbury was still stymied. He glared furiously at Charles Chelsea's final publicity release.

"You'll never understand," Winder said, "because you weren't born here. Compared to where you came from, this is always going to look like paradise. Hell, you could wipe out every last bird and butterfly, and it's still better than Toledo in the dead of winter."

With a dark chuckle, Kingsbury said, "No kidding."

"Don't read too much into this operation, Frankie. I'm just sick of asshole carpetbaggers coming down here and fucking up the place. Nothing personal."

It came out of the blue, Kingsbury saying, "There was a guy named Jack Winder. Big-time land developer, this goes back a few years, before I was selling waterfront. Winder Planned Communities was the company."

"My father."

"What?" said Kingsbury. "Quit whispering."

"Jack Winder was my father."

"Then what the hell are you doing? Biting the hand is what I'd call it. Dishonoring the family name."

"Depends on your point of view."

Kingsbury sneered. "I hear this line of bullshit all the time: "We got our slice of sunshine, fine, now it's time to close the borders." Selfish is what you are."

"Maybe so," Winder said. "I'd like to fish that shoreline again, that's for sure. I'd like to see some tarpon out there next spring."

Dramatically, Francis Kingsbury straightened in the chair. He began talking with his eyes and hands, unmistakably a sales pitch: "People come to the Amazing Kingdom, they might like to play some golf. Mommy takes the kids to the theme park, Daddy hits the fairways. So what?"

Winder said nothing. Kingsbury began to knead his jowls in exasperation. "What the hell's so wrong with that picture? Eighteen lousy holes, I just don't see the crime. It's what Disney did. It's what everybody does with prime acreage. This is Florida, for Chrissakes."

"Not the way it ought to be, Frankie."

"Then you're living in what they call a dreamworld. This ain't Oz, son, and there's no fairy wizard to make things right again. Down here the brick road's not yellow, it's green. Plain and simple. Case closed."

But Joe Winder wasn't changing his mind. "I hope the papers get your name right," he said.

Bleakly Kingsbury thought of front-page headlines and multimillion-dollar lawsuits and minimum-security prisons with no driving range. "All right," he said to Winder, "let's talk."

"You've got my offer. Read the press release, it's all tied up with a pretty ribbon. You shut down Falcon Trace for the noblest of reasons and you're a hero, Frankie. Isn't that what you want?"

"I'd rather have my oceanfront lots."

Then the door flew open and there, bug-eyed and seething, was Pedro Luz. He aimed a large blue handgun at Joe Winder and grunted something unintelligible.

"Nice of you to put in an appearance," Kingsbury remarked. His eyes flooded with a mixture of rage and relief. "This asshole, get him out of my sight! For good this time."

"Drop the gun," Pedro Luz told Winder. "And put on your goddamn head."

Winder did as he was told. Zipping himself in, he felt cumbersome and helpless and feverishly short of breath.

Kingsbury said, "He doesn't leave the park alive, you understand?"

"No problem," said Pedro Luz.

"No problem," mimicked Kingsbury. "No problem, my ass. This is Mr. Crackerjack Bodyguard, right? Mr. Lightning Response Time."

For a moment Pedro Luz felt an overwhelming urge to turn the pistol on Francis X. Kingsbury; something told him it would be every bit as satisfying as shooting Joe Winder. Maybe another time, he decided. After payday.

A muted voice inside the raccoon head said: "This is a big mistake, Frankie."

Kingsbury laughed mordantly and blew his nose. "Pedro, it's your last fucking chance. I hope you still got enough brain cells to do this one simple chore."

"No problem." With the crutch he roughly shoved Joe Winder toward the door.

"Hey, Pedro."

"What, Mr. Kingsbury?"

"That's a six-hundred-dollar animal costume. Try not to mess it up."