Carrie Lanier was practicing a song at the mirror as she dressed for the pageant. The door opened behind her, and she saw a flash of orange.
"Hey! We thought you were headed for New York."
"I seriously considered it." Skink shut the door with his foot.
"Your friend Officer Tile mentioned Orlando. Somebody shot up a tour bus, he figured it might be you."
"Another pale imitation, that's all. Where's your boyfriend?"
Carrie described Winder's plan to confront Francis Kingsbury. "Joe's got all the bases covered."
Skink shook his head. "It'll never work."
"Where have you been, anyway?"
"Down here in the underground, away from all radio beams. I needed a break from that damn plane."
Carrie moved closer to the mirror and began to put on her makeup. "What's with the gas cans?" she asked.
Skink carried one in each hand. "Let's pretend you didn't see these," he said. "I just want to make sure you've got a way out of the park."
"What about Joe?"
"I expect he's in some trouble," Skink said. "I've got a chore to do, then I'll check around."
"Don't worry, Pedro's locked in the storage room."
"How? With what?"
When Carrie told him, Skink frowned. "I guess I'd better get going."
She said, "Can you zip me up? There's a little hook at the top."
Skink set down the gas cans and fastened the back of her gown. He wondered what had happened to the Indian theme.
"When do you go on?" he asked.
"Half an hour."
"The dress is lovely," he said, stepping back. "Half an hour it is."
"Thanks. Wish me luck."
"You'll do fine."
Carrie turned from the mirror. "Should I wait for Joe?"
"Of course," said Skink, "but not too long."
When they got to the security office, Pedro Luz ordered Joe Winder to remove the raccoon costume and hang it neatly in the uniform closet. Then Pedro Luz dragged Winder into the storage room, clubbed him to the floor and beat him seven or eight times with the crutch – Joe Winder lost count. Every time Pedro Luz struck a blow, he emitted a queer high-pitched peep that sounded like a baby sparrow. When he finally stopped to rest, he was panting heavily and his face shone with damp splotches. Spying from a fetal position on the floor, Joe Winder watched Pedro Luz swallow two handfuls of small orange tablets. Winder assumed these were not muscle relaxants.
"I can kill you with my bare hands," Pedro Luz said informatively.
Winder sat up, hugging his own chest to prevent pieces of broken ribs from snapping off like dead twigs. He couldn't figure out why Pedro Luz kept a full-length mirror in the storage room.
"It's raining outside," Pedro Luz said.
"That's what we're waiting for?"
"Yeah. Soon as it stops, I'll take you out and kill you."
Pedro Luz stripped off his shirt and began to work out with a pair of heavy dumbbells; he couldn't take his eyes off his own glorious biceps. The syncopation of Pedro's breathing and pumping put Joe Winder to sleep. When he awoke much later, still on the floor, he saw that Pedro Luz had put on a fresh uniform. The security man rose unsteadily and reached for the crutch; his hands trembled and his eyelids were mottled and puffy.
"The parade starts soon," he said. "Everyone in the park goes to watch – that's when you're gonna break into the ticket office to rip off the cashboxes."
"And you're going to catch me in the act, and shoot me."
"Yeah," Pedro Luz wheezed, "in the back."
"Pretty sloppy. The cops'll have plenty of questions."
"I'm still thinking it through." His head lolled and he shut his eyes. Joe Winder sprang for the door and regretted it instantly. Pedro Luz was on him like a mad bear; he grabbed Winder at the base of the neck and hurled him backward into the stock shelves.
"And that was one-handed," Pedro Luz bragged. "How much do you weigh?"
Winder answered, with a groan, "One seventy-five."
The security man beamed. "Light as a feather. No problem."
"I'd like to speak with your boss one more time."
"No way." Pedro Luz hoisted Winder from a tangle of intravenous tubes and set him down in a bare corner. He said, "Remember, I still got that gun you were carrying – I figure that's my throwdown. The story is, I had to shoot you because of the gun."
Winder nodded. "I'm assuming there'll be no witnesses."
"Course not. They'll all be at the parade."
"What about the rain, Pedro? What if the parade's washed out?"
"It's August, asshole. The rain don't last long." Pedro Luz hammered the heel of his hand against the side of his skull, as if trying to knock a wasp out of his ear. "God, it's loud in here."
"I don't mean to nag," Joe Winder said, "but you ought to lay off the steroids."
"Don't start with me!" Pedro Luz cracked the door and poked his head out. "See, it's stopped already. Just a drizzle." He gripped Joe Winder by the shoulder. "Let's go, smartass."
But Winder could barely walk for the pain. Outside, under a low muddy sky, the tourists rushed excitedly toward Kingsbury Lane, where a band had begun to play. Pedro Luz marched Winder against the flow of yammering, gummy-faced children and their anxious, umbrella-wielding parents. The ticket office was on the other side of the park, a long hike, and Joe Winder had planned to use the time to devise a plan for escape. Instead his thoughts meandered inanely; he noticed, for example, what a high percentage of the Amazing Kingdom's tourists were clinically overweight. Was this a valid cross-section of American society? Or did fat people travel to Florida more frequently than thin people? Three times Winder slowed to ponder the riddle, and three times Pedro Luz thwacked the back of his legs with the dreaded crutch. No one stopped to interfere; most likely they assumed that Winder was a purse snatcher or some other troublemaker being rousted by Security.
Eventually the crowds thinned and the light rain stopped. The two men were alone, crossing the walkway that spanned the dolphin tank. The swim-along attraction had closed early because the trainers were needed at the parade, in case the lion got testy. Joe Winder heard a burst of applause across the amusement park – fireworks blossoming over Kingsbury Lane. The pageant had begun!
Winder thought of Carrie Lanier, and hoped she had the good sense not to come looking for him. He felt Pedro Luz's crutch jab him between the shoulder blades. "Hold it," the security man commanded.
A hoary figure appeared at the end of the walkway ahead of them. It was a tall man carrying two red containers.
"Now what?" said Pedro Luz.
Joe Winder's heart sank. Skink didn't see them. He went down two nights of stairs and stacked the gas cans on the back of a Cushman motor cart. He ran back up the steps, disappeared through an unmarked door near the Rare Animal Pavilion and quickly emerged with two more cans of gasoline.
"The Catacombs," Pedro Luz said, mainly to himself.
Joe Winder heard him unsnap the holster. He turned and told Pedro Luz not to do anything crazy.
"Shut up, smartass."
As they watched Skink load the second pair of cans onto the Cushman, Winder realized his own mistake: he had tried too hard to be reasonable and civilized and possibly even clever. Such efforts were wasted on men such as Francis X. Kingsbury. Skink had the right idea.
Pedro Luz aimed his .45 and shouted, "Freeze right there!" Skink stopped at the top of the steps. Pedro Luz ordered him to raise his hands, but Skink acted as if he didn't hear.
"Don't I know you?" Skink said, coming closer.
Pedro Luz found it difficult to look directly at the bearded stranger because one of the man's eyeballs seemed dislodged from the socket. As Skink approached, he gave no indication of recognizing Joe Winder.
"Hello, gentlemen," he said. Casually he bent to examine the taped stump of Pedro Luz's leg. "Son, you're dropping more parts than a Ford Pinto."
Flustered, Pedro Luz fell back on standard hardass-cop colloquy: "Lemme see some ID."
Skink reached into the blaze-orange weather suit and came out with a small kitchen jar. He handed it to the security man and said, "I believe this belongs to you."
Pedro Luz felt his stomach quake. At the bottom of the jar, drifting in pickle juice, was the tip of his right index finger. It looked like a cube of pink tofu.
"The old woman bit it off," Skink reminded him, "while you were beating her up."
Beautiful, Joe Winder thought. We're both going to die long horrible deaths.
Hoarsely, Pedro Luz said, "Who the hell are you?"
Skink gestured at the soiled bandages around his chest. "I'm the one you shot at the trailer!"
All three of them jumped as a Roman candle exploded high over KingsBury Lane. A band was playing the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It sounded dreadful.
In the tank below, Dickie the Dolphin rolled twice and shot a light spray of water from his blowhole. A few drops sprinkled the barrel of Pedro Luz's gun, and he wiped it nervously on the front of his trousers. The circuits of his brain were becoming badly overloaded; assimilating new information had become a struggle – the drugs, the finger in the jar, the one-eyed stoner with the gas cans, the fireworks, the god-awful music. It was time to kill these sorry bastards and go to the gym.
"Who first?" he asked. "Who wants it first?"
Joe Winder saw no evidence of urgency in Skink's demeanor, so he took it upon himself to ram an elbow into the soft declivity beneath Pedro Luz's breastbone. Winder was stunned to see the bodybuilder go down, and idiotically he leapt upon him to finish the job. Winder's punching ability was hampered by the searing pain in his rib cage, and though Pedro Luz was gagging and drooling and gulping to catch his wind, it was a relatively simple exercise to lock his arms around all hundred and seventy-five pounds of Joe Winder and squeeze the breath out of him. The last thing Winder heard, before blacking out, was a splash in the tank below.
He hoped like hell it was the pistol.
Marine biologists debate the relative intelligence of the Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin, but it is generally accepted that the graceful mammal is extremely smart; that it is able to communicate using sophisticated underwater sonics; that it sometimes appears capable of emotions, including grief and joy. Noting that the dolphin's brain is proportionally larger and more fully developed than that of human beings, some experts contend that the animals are operating in a superior cognitive realm that we simply cannot comprehend.
A more skeptical view (and one endorsed by Joe Winder) is that dolphins probably aren't quite as smart as tourist lore suggests. Otherwise why would they allow themselves to be so easily captured, subjugated, trained and put on public display? It seemed to Winder that somersaulting through hula hoops in exchange for a handful of sardines was not proof of high intellect. Given fins and some Milk-Bones, your average French poodle could master the same feat.
It is certainly true, however, that captive dolphins exhibit distinct and complex personalities. Some are gregarious and easily tamed, while others are aloof and belligerent; some are happy to perform stunts for cheering tourists, while others get ulcers. Because each dolphin is so sensitive and unique, curators must be extremely careful when selecting the animals for commercial aquarium shows.
When it came to jumping hula hoops, Dickie the Dolphin was competent if unspectacular. The same could be said for his tail-walking, his backward flips and his mastery of the beach ball. While most spectators thought he was a lovable ham, experienced dolphin trainers could see he was just going through the motions. Ever since replacing the deceased Orky as the Amazing Kingdom's aquatic star, Dickie had approached each performance with the same sullen indifference. He took a similar attitude into the swim-along sessions, where he habitually kept a large distance between himself and whatever loud pale humanoid had been suckered into entering the tank.
The exception, of course, was when Dickie the Dolphin got into one of his "moods." Then he would frolic and nuzzle and rub eagerly against the swimmer, who inevitably mistook these gestures for honest affection. Dolphin researchers have documented numerous sexual advances upon human beings of both genders, but they cannot agree on the animal's intention in these circumstances. If dolphins truly are second to people on the intelligence scale, then they most certainly would not mistake a bikini-clad legal secretary for a member of their own species. Which raises a more intriguing hypothesis: that captive male dolphins attempt these outrageous liaisons out of mischief, or perhaps even revenge. The truth is locked deep inside the dolphin's large and complicated cerebrum, but the phenomenon has been widely reported.
On the evening of August 6, Dickie the Dolphin was in a state of high agitation as he circled the darkened whale tank at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. Perhaps it was the percussion of the nearby fireworks that disrupted the powerful creature's peace, or perhaps it was the effect of a long and lonely confinement. Although the trained seals and pelicans could be entertaining, Dickie the Dolphin probably would have preferred the companionship of a female partner. And he would have had one if Francis X. Kingsbury had not been so cheap. In any event, the solitary dolphin was keeping a sharp and wily eye on the commotion taking place along the walkway above.
At the first splash, Dickie swiftly sounded, tracking a small steel object to the bottom of his tank. He never considered retrieving the item, as there would be no reward for his effort – the buckets of cut fish had been hauled away hours ago. So the dolphin disregarded Pedro Luz's gun, glided slowly to the surface and waited.
The second splash was different.
Pedro Luz was astonished by the strength of the one-eyed man. He took a punch as well as anyone that Pedro Luz had ever assaulted, plus he was quick. Every time Pedro Luz swung and missed, the bearded stranger hit him two or three times in the gut. It was starting to hurt immensely.
Having lost his own gun, Pedro Luz tried to retrieve the spare – Joe Winder's gun – from the pocket of his trousers. Every attempt brought a new flurry of punches from the one-eyed hobo, so Pedro Luz abandoned the plan. With a bellowing lunge, he was able to get a grip on the stranger's collar – an animal collar! – and pull him close. Pedro Luz preferred squeezing to boxing, and was confident he could end the fight (and the big freak's life) with a vigorous hug. That's when somebody grabbed Pedro Luz's hair from behind, and yanked his head back so fiercely that a popping noise came from his neck. Next thing he knew, his pants were off and he was thrashing in the warm water. Above him stood Joe Winder and the stranger, peering over the rail.
Swimming is an exercise that depends more on style than muscle, and Pedro Luz was plainly a terrible swimmer. The throbbing of his truncated leg added pain to ineptitude as he paddled the tank haplessly in search of a ladder. When the massive dolphin rolled beside him in the dark, Pedro Luz cursed and splashed his arms angrily. He was not the least bit afraid of stupid fish; perhaps he was deceived by the dolphin's friendly smile, or misled by childhood memories of the hokey "Flipper" television series. In any event, Pedro Luz struck out at the creature with the misguided assumption that he could actually hurt it, and that it was too tame and good-natured to retaliate. Pedro's drug-inflamed brain failed to register the fact that Dickie the Dolphin was a more attuned physiological specimen than Pedro Luz himself, and about five hundred pounds larger. When the animal nudged him playfully with its snout, Pedro Luz balled his fists and slugged its silky gray flank.
"Be careful," Joe Winder advised from the walkway, but Pedro Luz paid no attention. The damn fish would not go away! Using its pectoral flippers almost as arms, it held Pedro Luz in a grasp that was gentle yet firm.
Spitting curses, he kicked the dolphin savagely and pushed away. Stroking clumsily for the wall of the tank, he saw the long sleek form rise beneath him. A fin found Pedro Luz's armpit and spun him roughly. He came up choking, but again the creature tugged him down. Once more Pedro Luz fought his way to the top, and this time Dickie the Dolphin began to nip mischievously – tiny needle-like teeth raking Pedro's neck, his shoulders, his bare thighs. Then the dolphin rolled languidly on its side and gave a soft inquisitive whistle, the same sound Flipper used to make at the end of the TV show when he waved at the camera. Pedro Luz tried not to be afraid, but he couldn't understand what this dolphin was trying to say, or do. The salt water stung his eyes and his throat, and the stump of his leg felt as if it were on fire.
Again Pedro Luz felt cool fins slide under his arms as the dolphin gradually steered him toward the deepest part of the tank. The security man tried to break free, but it did no good. Something else propelled him now – a formidable protuberance that left no doubt as to Dickie the Dolphin's true purpose.
Pedro Luz was awestruck and mortified. The long pale thing loomed from the gray water and touched him – hooking, in fact, around his buttocks. The amphibious prodding brought an unfamiliar plea to Pedro Luz's lips: "Help!"
Watching events unfold in the tank below, Skink agreed it was an extraordinary scene.
"I told you," said Joe Winder. "It's one of Nature's marvels."
Pedro Luz began to whimper. No regimen of weight training and pharmaceutical enhancement could have prepared him, or any mortal man, for an all-out sexual attack by a healthy bottle-nosed dolphin. Pedro Luz had never felt so helpless, exhausted and inadequate; desperately he punched at the prodigious inquiring tuber, only to be rebuked by a well-placed slap from Dickie's sinewy fluke.
Leaning over the rail, Joe Winder offered more advice: "Just roll with it. Don't fight him."
But the futility of resistance was already clear to Pedro Luz, who found himself – for the first time in his adult life – completely out of strength. As he was pulled underwater for the final time, terror gave way to abject humiliation: he was being fucked to death by a damn fish.