Nina asked where he was calling from.
"Charlie's office," Winder said. "Here's what I'm going to do: I'll leave the phone off the hook all night. That way you can work on your poetry and still make money."
"Joe, that'll cost him a fortune. It's four bucks a minute."
"I know the rates, Nina. Don't worry about it."
"You ready for the latest?"
"Just one verse. Time's running out."
"Here goes," she said, and began to recite:
"You flooded me with passions
Hard and lingering.
You took me down again
Pumping breathless, biting blind.
Hot in your bloodrush, I dreamed of more."
"Wow," Winder said. Obviously things were going gangbusters between Nina and the light-truck salesman.
"You really like it? Or are you patronizing me again?"
"Nina, you're breaking new ground."
"Guess what the moron at the phone syndicate wants. Limericks! Sex limericks, like they publish in Playboy. That's his idea of erotic poetry!"
"Stick to your guns," Winder said.
"You bet I will."
"The reason I called was to say good-bye."
"So tonight's the night," she said. "Will I be seeing you on the news?"
"I hope not." He thought: What the hell. "I met a woman," he said.
"I'm very happy for you."
"Aw, Nina, don't say that."
"I am. I think it's great."
"Christ Almighty, aren't you the least bit jealous?"
God, she was a pisser. "Then lie to me," Winder said. "Have mercy on my lunatic soul and lie to me. Tell me you're mad with jealousy."
"You win, Joe. You saw through my act."
"Was that a giggle I heard?"
"No!" Nina said. The giggle burst into a full-blown laugh. "I'm dying here. I might just leap off the building, I'm so damn jealous. Who is she? Who is this tramp?"
Now Winder started laughing, too. "I'd better go," he said, "before I say something sensible."
"Call me, Joe. Whatever happens, I'd love to get a phone call."
"I know the number by heart," he said. "Me and every pervert on the Gold Coast."
"You go to hell," Nina teased. "And be careful, dammit."
He said good-bye and placed the receiver on Charles Chelsea's desk.
Skink mulched a cotton candy and said, "These are excellent seats."
They ought to be." Joe Winder assumed Francis X. Kingsbury would arrive at any moment; it was his private viewing box, after all – leather swivel chairs, air-conditioning, video monitors, a wet bar. Thirty rows up, overlooking the parade route.
"What will you do when he gets here?" Skink asked.
"I haven't decided. Maybe he'd like to go swimming with Pedro's new friend."
The grandstand was packed, and Kingsbury Lane was lined five deep with eager spectators. As the history of Florida unfolded in song and skit, Joe Winder imagined that the Stations of the Cross could be similarly adapted and set to music, if the audience would only forgive a few minor revisions. Every float in the Summerfest pageant was greeted with the blind and witless glee displayed by people who have spent way too much money and are determined to have fun. They cheered at the sight of a bootless Ponce de Leon, an underaged maiden on each arm, wading bawdily into the Fountain of Youth; they roared as the pirate Black Caesar chased a concubine up the mizzenmast while his men plundered a captured galleon; they gasped as the Killer Hurricane of 1926 tore the roof off a settler's cabin and the smock off his brave young wife.
Skink said, "I never realized cleavage played such an important role in Florida history." Joe Winder told him to just wait for the break-dancing migrants.
Carrie Lanier gave a cassette of the new music to the driver, and took her place on the last float. The Talent Manager showed up and demanded to know why she wasn't wearing the Indian costume.
"That wasn't an Indian costume," Carrie said, "unless the Seminoles had streetwalkers."
The Talent Manager, a middle-aged woman with sweeping peroxide hair and ropes of gold jewelry, informed Carrie that a long gown was unsuitable for the Jubilee parade.
"It's ideal for what I'm singing," Carrie replied.
"And what would that be?"
"That would be none of your business." She adjusted the microphone, which was clipped into the neck of her dress.
The Talent Manager became angry. "Paul Revere and the Raiders isn't good enough for you?"
"Go away," said Carrie.
"And where's our lion?"
"The lion is taking the night off."
"No, missy," the Talent lady said, shaking a finger. "Thousands of people out there are waiting to see Princess Golden Sun ride a wild lion through the Everglades."
"The lion has a furball. Now get lost."
"At least put on the wig," the Talent lady pleaded. "There's no such thing as a blond Seminole. For the sake of authenticity, put on the damn wig!"
"Toodle-loo," said Carrie. And the float began to roll.
At first, Sergeant Mark Dyerson thought the telemetry was on the fritz again. How could the panther get back on the island? No signal had been received for days, then suddenly there it was, beep-beep-beep. Number 17. The sneaky bastard was at it again!
Sergeant Dyerson asked the pilot to keep circling beneath the clouds until he got a more precise fix on the transmitter. The greenish darkness of the hammocks and the ocean suddenly was splayed by a vast sparkling corridor of lights – the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. The plane banked high over a confetti of humanity.
"Damn," said the ranger. Sharply he tapped the top of the radio receiver. "This can't be right. Fly me over again."
But the telemetry signals were identical on the second pass, and the third and the fourth. Sergeant Dyerson peered out the window of the Piper and thought, He's down there. He's inside the goddamn park!
The ranger told the pilot to call Naples. "I need some backup," he said, "and I need the guy with the dogs."
"Should I say which cat we're after?"
"No, don't," Sergeant Dyerson said. The top brass of the Game and Fish Department was tired of hearing about Number 17. "Tell them we've got a panther in trouble," said Sergeant Dyerson, "that's all you need to say."
The pilot reached for the radio. "What the hell's it doing in the middle of an amusement park?"
"Going crazy," said the ranger. "That's all I can figure."
The break-dancing migrant workers were a sensation with the crowd. Skink covered his face during most of the performance; it was one of the most tasteless spectacles he had ever seen. He asked Joe Winder if he wished to help with the gasoline.
"No, I'm waiting for Kingsbury."
"To resolve our differences as gentlemen. And possibly pound him into dog chow."
"Forget Kingsbury," Skink advised. "There's your girl."
Carrie's float appeared at the end of the promenade; a spotlight found her in a black sequined evening gown, posed among ersatz palms and synthetic cypress. She was perfectly dazzling, although the crowd reacted with confused and hesitant applause – they'd been expecting a scantily clad Indian princess astride a snarling wildcat.
Joe Winder tried to wave, but it hurt too much to raise his arms. Carrie didn't see him. She folded her hands across her midriff and began to sing:
"Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore
Non fed nin male ad animal viva!
Con man furtiva
Quante miserie conobbi, aiutai...."
Winder was dazed, and he was not alone; a restless murmuring swept through the stands and rippled along the promenade.
"Magnificent!" Skink said. His good eye ablaze, he clutched Winder's shoulder: "Isn't she something!"
"What is that? What's she singing?"
Skink shook him with fierce exuberance. "My God, man, it's Puccini. It's Tosca!"
"I see." It was a new wrinkle: opera.
And Carrie sang beautifully; what her voice lacked in strength it made up in a flawless liquid clarity. The aria washed sorrowfully across the Amazing Kingdom and, like a chilly rain, changed the mood of the evening.
Skink put his mouth to Winder's ear and whispered: "This takes place in the second act, where Tosca has just seen her lover tortured by the ruthless police chief and sentenced to death by a firing squad. In her failed effort to save him, Tosca herself becomes a murderess. Her song is a lamentation on life's tragic ironies."
"I'd never have guessed," Winder said.
As the float passed the Magic Mansion, Carrie sang:
"Nell ora del dolore
Perche, perche, Signore,
Perche me ne rimuneri cost?"
Skink closed his eyes and swayed. "Ah, why, dear Lord," he said. "Ah, why do you reward your servant so?"
Winder said the audience seemed fidgety and disturbed.
"Disturbed?" Skink was indignant. "They ought to be distraught. Mournful. They ought to be weeping?
"They're only tourists," Joe Winder said. "They've been waiting all afternoon to see a lion."
"Oh, she knew," Winder said fondly. "She knew they wouldn't like it one bit."
Skink grinned. "Bless her heart." He began to applaud rambunctiously, "Bravo! Bravo!" His clapping and shouting caught the attention of spectators in the lower rows, who looked up toward the VIP box with curious annoyance. Carrie spotted both of them in Kingsbury's booth, and waved anxiously. Then she gathered herself and, with a deep breath, began the first verse again.
"What a trouper." Joe Winder was very proud.
Skink straightened his rain cap and said, "Go get her."
"Right now. It's time." Skink reached out to shake Winder's hand. "You've got about an hour," he said.
Winder told him to be careful. "There's lots of kids out there."
"Don't you worry."
"What about Kingsbury?"
Skink said, "Without the park, he's finished."
"I intended to make him famous. You should've heard my plan."
"Some other time," Skink said. "Now go. And tell her how great she was. Tell her it was absolutely wonderful. Giacomo would've been proud."
"Arrivederci!" said Joe Winder.
From his third-floor office above Sally's Cimarron Saloon, Francis X. Kingsbury heard the parade go by. Only Princess Golden Sun's dolorous aria brought him to the window, where he parted the blinds to see what in the name of Jesus H. Christ had gone wrong. The disposition of the crowd had changed from festive to impatient. Unfuckingbelievable, thought Kingsbury. It's death, this music. And what's with the evening gown, the Kitty Carlisle number. Where's the buckskin bikini? Where's the tits and ass? The tourists looked ready to bolt.
Carrie hit the final note and held it – held it forever, it seemed to Kingsbury. The girl had great pipes, he had to admit, but it wasn't the time or place for Italian caterwauling. And God, this song, when would it end?
As the float trundled by, Kingsbury was surprised to see that Princess Golden Sun wasn't singing anymore; in fact, she was drinking from a can of root beer. Yet her final melancholy note still hung in the air!
Or was it something else now?
The fire alarm, for instance.
Kingsbury thought: Please, don't let it be. He tried to call Security but no one answered – that fucking Pedro, he should've been back from his errand hours ago.
Outside, the alarm had tripped a prerecorded message on the public-address system, urging everyone to depart the Amazing Kingdom in a calm and orderly fashion. When Kingsbury peeked out the window again, he saw customers streaming like ants for the exits; the performers and concessionaires ran, as well. Baldy the Eagle ripped off his wings and sprinted from the park at Olympic speed; the animal trainers fled together in a hijacked Cushman, but not before springing the hinge on the lion's cage and shooing the wobbly, tranquilized beast toward the woods.
Kingsbury ran, too. He ran in search of Pedro Luz, the only man who knew how to turn off the fire alarm. Golf spikes clacking on the concrete, Kingsbury jogged from the security office to King Arthur's Food Court to The Catacombs, where he found Spence Mooher limping in mopey addled circles, like a dog who'd been grazed by a speeding bus.
But there was no trace of Pedro, and despair clawed at Kingsbury's gut. People now were pouring out of the park, and taking their money with them. Even if they had wished to stop and purchase one last overpriced souvenir, no one was available to sell it to them.
Chickenshits! Kingsbury raged inwardly. All this panic, and no fire. Can't you idiots see it's a false alarm?
Then came the screams.
Kingsbury's throat tightened. He ducked into a photo kiosk and removed the laminated ID card from his belt. Why risk it if the crowd turned surly?
The screaming continued. In a prickly sweat, Kingsbury tracked the disturbance to the whale tank, where something had caught the attention of several families on their way out of the park. They lined the walkway, and excitedly pointed to the water. Assuming the pose of a fellow tourist, Kingsbury nonchalantly joined the others on the rail. He overheard one man tell his wife that there wasn't enough light to use the video camera; she encouraged him to try anyway. A young girl cried and clutched at her mother's leg; her older brother told her to shut up, it's just a plastic dummy.
It wasn't a dummy. It was the partially clothed body of Pedro Luz, facedown in the Orky tank. His muscular buttocks mooned the masses, and indeed it was this sight – not the fact he was dead – that had shocked customers into shrieking.
Francis X. Kingsbury glared spitefully at the corpse. Pedro's bobbing bare ass seemed to mock him – a hairy faceless smile, taunting as it floated by. So this is how it goes, thought Kingsbury. Give a man a second chance, this is how he pays you back.
Suddenly, and without warning, Dickie the Dolphin rocketed twenty feet out of the water and performed a perfect triple-reverse somersault.
The tourists, out of pure dumb reflex, broke into applause.
The Amazing Kingdom of Thrills emptied in forty minutes. Two hook-and-ladder rigs arrived from Homestead, followed by a small pumper truck from the main fire station in lower Key Largo. The fire fighters unrolled the hoses and wandered around the park, but found no sign of a fire. They were preparing to leave when three green Jeeps with flashing lights raced into the empty parking lot. The fire fighters weren't sure what to make of the Game and Fish officers; an amusement park seemed an unlikely hideout for gator poachers. Sergeant Mark Dyerson flagged down one of the departing fire trucks and asked the captain if it was safe to take dogs into the area. The captain said sure, be my guest. Almost immediately the hounds struck a scent, and the old tracker turned them loose. The wildlife officers loaded up the dart guns and followed.
Francis Kingsbury happened to be staring out the window when he spotted the lion loping erratically down Kingsbury Lane; a pack of dogs trailed closely, snapping at its tail. The doped-up cat attempted to climb one of the phony palm trees, but fell when its claws pulled loose from the Styrofoam bark. Swatting at the hounds, the cat rose and continued its disoriented escape.
Lunacy, thought Kingsbury.
Someone knocked twice on the office door and came in – a short round man with thin brown hair and small black eyes. A hideous polyester-blend shirt identified him as a valued customer. Pinned diagonally across the man's chest was a wrinkled streamer that said "OUR FIVE-MILLIONTH SPECIAL GUEST!" In the crook of each arm sat a stuffed toy animal with reddish fur, pipestem whiskers and a merry turquoise tongue.
Vance and Violet Vole.
"For my nieces," the man explained. "I got so much free stuff I can hardly fit it in the car."
Kingsbury smiled stiffly. "The big winner, right? That's you."
"Yeah, my wife can't fuckin" believe it."
"Didn't you hear it, the fire alarm? Everybody else, I mean, off they went."
"But I didn't see no fire," the man said. "No smoke, neither." He arranged the stuffed animals side by side on Kingsbury's sofa.
The guy's a total yutz, Kingsbury thought. Does he want my autograph or what? Maybe a snapshot with the big cheese.
"What's that you got there?" the man asked. "By the way, the name's Rossiter." He nodded toward a plaid travel bag that lay open on Kingsbury's desk. The bag was full of cash, mostly twenties and fifties.
The man said, "Looks like I wasn't the only one had a lucky day."
Kingsbury snapped the bag closed. I'm very busy, Mr. Rossiter. What's the problem – something with the new car, right? The color doesn't match your wife's eyes or whatever."
"No, the car's great. I got no complaints about the car."
Then what?" Kingsbury said. "The parade, I bet. That last song, I swear to Christ, I don't know where that shit came from – "
"You kiddin' me? It was beautiful. It was Puccini."
Kingsbury threw up his hands. "Whatever. Not to be rude, but what the fuck do you want?"
The man said, "I got a confession to make. I cheated a little this morning." He shrugged sheepishly. "I cut in line so we could be the first ones through the gate. That's how I won the car."
It figures, thought Kingsbury. Your basic South Florida clientele.
The man said, "I felt kinda lousy, but what the hell. Opportunity knocks, right? I mean, since I had to be here anyway – "
"Mr. Rossiter, do I look like a priest? All this stuff, I don't need to hear it – "
"Hey, call me Lou," the man said, "and I'll call you Frankie." From his Sansibelt slacks he withdrew a .38-caliber pistol with a silencer.
Francis Kingsbury's cheeks went from pink to gray. "Don't tell me," he said.
"Yeah," said Lou, "can you believe it?"