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Francis X. Kingsbury asked the hit man not to shoot.

"Save your breath," said Lou.

"But, look, a fantastic new world I built here. A place for little tykes, you saw for yourself roller coasters and clowns and talking animals. Petey Possum and so forth. I did all this myself."

"What a guy," said Lou.

Kingsbury was unaccustomed to such bald sarcasm. "Maybe I make a little dough off the operation, so what? Look at all the fucking happiness I bring people!"

"I enjoyed myself," Lou admitted. "My wife, she's crazy about the Twirling Teacups. She and her mother both. I almost spit up on the damn thing, to be honest, but my wife's got one a them cast-iron stomachs."

Kingsbury brightened. "The Twirling Teacups, I designed those myself. The entire ride from scratch."

"No shit?"

The hit man seemed to soften, and Kingsbury sensed an opening. "Look, I got an idea about paying back the Zubonis. It's a big construction deal, we're talking millions. They'd be nuts to pass it up can you make a phone call? Tell 'em it's once in a lifetime."

Lou said, "Naw, I don't think so."

"Florida waterfront that's all you gotta say. Florida fucking waterfront, and they'll be on the next plane from Newark, I promise."

"You're a good salesman," said the hit man, "but I got a contract."

Kingsbury nudged the plaid travel bag across the desk. "My old lady, she wanted me to go on a trip Europe, the whole nine yards. I was thinking why not, just for a couple months. She's never been there."

Lou nodded. "Now's a good time to go. The crowds aren't so bad."

"Anyhow, I emptied the cash registers after the parade." Kingsbury patted the travel bag. "This is just from ticket sales, not concessions, and still you're talking three hundred and forty thousand. Cash-ola."

"Yeah? That's some vacation, three hundred forty grand."

"And it's all yours if you forget about the contract."

"Hell," said Lou, "it's mine if I don't."

Outside there was a bang, followed by a hot crackling roar. When Kingsbury spun his chair toward the window, his face was bathed in flickering yellow light.

"Lord," he said.

The Wet Willy was on fire hundreds of feet of billowed latex, squirming and thrashing like an eel on a griddle. White sparks and flaming bits of rubber hissed into the tropical sky, and came down as incendiary rain upon the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. Smaller fires began to break out everywhere.

Francis Kingsbury shivered under his hairpiece.

Lou went to the window and watched the Wet Willy burn. "You know what it looks like?"

"Yes," Kingsbury said.

"A giant Trojan."

"I know."

"It ain't up to code, that's for sure. You must've greased some county inspectors."

"Another good guess," Kingsbury said. Why did the alarm cut off? he wondered. Where did all the firemen go?

Lou farted placidly as he walked back to the desk. "Well, I better get a move on."

Kingsbury tried to hand him the telephone. "Please," he begged, "call the Zuboni brothers."

"A deal's a deal," Lou said, checking the fit of the silencer.

"But you saw for yourself!" Kingsbury cried. "Another five years, goddamn, I'll be bigger than Disney."

Lou looked doubtful. "I wasn't gonna say anything, but what the hell. The car and the prizes are great, don't get me wrong, but the park's got a long ways to go."

Petulantly, Kingsbury said, "Fine, let's hear it."

"It's the bathrooms," said Lou. "The fuckin" Port Authority's got cleaner bathrooms."

"Is that so?"

"Yeah, and it wouldn't hurt to keep an extra roll a toilet paper in the stalls."

"Is that it? That's your big gripe?"

Lou said, "People notice them things, they really do." Then he stepped toward Francis X. Kingsbury and raised the pistol.

Joe Winder led her through the dense hammock, all the way to the ocean's edge. It took nearly an hour because Carrie wore high heels. The gown kept snagging on branches, and the insects were murder.

"I'm down two pints," she said, scratching at her ankles.

"Take off the shoes. Hurry." He held her hand and waded into the water.

"Joe!" The gown rose up around her hips; the sequins sparkled like tiny minnows.

"How deep are we going?" she asked.

At first the turtle grass tickled her toes, then it began to sting. Winder kept walking until the water was up to his chest.

"See? No more bugs."

"You're full of tricks," Carrie said, clinging to his arm. From the flats it was possible to see the entire curving shore of the island, including the naked gash made by the bulldozers at Falcon Trace. She asked if the trees would ever come back.

"Someday," Joe Winder said, "if the bastards leave it alone."

Stretching toward the horizon was a ribbon of lights from the cars sitting bumper-to-bumper on County Road 905 the exodus of tourists from the Amazing Kingdom. Winder wondered if Skink had waited long enough to make his big move.

He listened for the distant sound of sirens as he moved through the shallows, following the shoreline south. The warm hug of the tide soothed the pain in his chest. He pointed at a pair of spotted leopard rays, pushing twin wakes.

"What else do you see?" Carrie said.

"Turtles. Jellyfish. A pretty girl with no shoes." He kissed her on the neck.

"How far can we go like this?" she asked.

"Big Pine, Little Torch, all the way to Key West if you want."

She laughed. "Joe, that's a hundred miles." She kicked playfully into the deeper water. "It feels so good."

"You sang beautifully tonight. Watch out for the coral."

When Carrie stood up, the water came to her chin. Blowing bubbles, she said, "I didn't know you liked opera."

"I hate opera," Winder said, "but you made it wonderful."

She splashed after him, but he swam away.

They didn't leave the ocean until the road was clear and the island was dark. They agreed it would be best to get out of Monroe County for a while, so they took Card Sound Road toward the mainland. The pavement felt cool under their feet. They wanted to hold hands, but it hampered their ability to defend themselves against the swarming mosquitoes. Every few minutes Winder would stop walking and check the sky for a change in the light. One time he was sure he heard a helicopter.

Carrie said, "What's your feeling about all this?"

"Meaning Kingsbury and the whole mess."


"There's thousands more where he came from."

"Oh, brother," Carrie said. "I was hoping you'd gotten it all out of your system."

"Never," said Winder, "but I'm open to suggestions."

"All right, here's one: Orlando."

"God help us."

"Now wait a second, Joe. They're shooting commercials at those new studios up there. I've got my first audition lined up for next week."

"What kind of commercial?"

"The point is, it's national exposure."

"Promise me something," Winder said. "Promise it's not one of those personal-hygiene products."

"Fabric softener. The script's not bad, all things considered."

"And will there be singing?"

"No singing," Carrie said, picking up the pace. "They've got newspapers in Orlando, don't they?"

"Oh no, you don't."

"It'd be good for you, Joe. Write about the important things, whatever pisses you off. Just write something. Otherwise you'll make me crazy, and I'll wind up killing you in your sleep."

The Card Sound Bridge rose steeply ahead. A handful of crabbers and snapper fishermen sleepily tended slack lines. Joe and Carrie took the sidewalk. For some reason she stopped and gave him a long kiss.

Halfway up the rise, she tugged on his hand and told him to turn around.

There it was: the eastern sky aglow, fat clouds roiling unnaturally under a pulsing halo of wild pink and orange. Baleful columns of tarry smoke rose from the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills.

Joe Winder whistled in amazement. "There's arson," he said, "and then there's arson."

Bud Schwartz and Danny Pogue were surprised to find Molly McNamara wide awake, propped up with a stack of thin hospital pillows. She was brushing her snowy hair and reading the New Republic when the burglars arrived.

"Pacemaker," Molly reported. "A routine procedure."

"You look so good," said Danny Pogue. "Bud, don't she look good?"

"Hush now," Molly said. "Sit down here, the news is coming on. There's a story you'll both find interesting." Without being asked, Danny Pogue switched the television to Channel 10, Molly's favorite.

Bud Schwartz marveled at the old woman in bed. Days earlier, she had seemed so weak and withered and close to death. Now the gray eyes were as sharp as a hawk's, her cheeks shone, and her voice rang strong with maternal authority.

She said, "Danny, did you get the bullets?"

"Yes, ma'am." He handed Molly the yellow box.

"These are .22-longs," she said. "I needed shorts. That's what the gun takes."

Danny Pogue looked lamely toward his partner. Bud Schwartz said, "Look, we just asked for .22s. The guy didn't say nothin" about long or short."

"It's all right," Molly McNamara said. "I'll pick up a box at the range next week."

"We don't know diddly about guns," Danny Pogue reiterated. "Neither of us do."

"I know, and I think it's precious." Molly put on her rose-framed glasses and instructed Bud Schwartz to adjust the volume on the television. A nurse came in to check the dressing on Molly's stitches, but Molly shooed her away. She pointed at the TV and said, "Look here, boys."

The news opened with videotape of a colossal raging fire. The scene had been recorded at a great distance, and from a helicopter. When the TV reporter announced what was burning, the burglars simultaneously looked at one another and mouthed the same profane exclamation.

"Yes," Molly McNamara said rapturously. "Yes, indeed."

Danny Pogue felt mixed emotions as he watched the Amazing Kingdom burn. He recalled the gaiety of the promenade, the friendliness of the animal characters, the circus colors and brassy music, the wondrous sensation of being inundated with fun. Then he thought of Francis X. Kingsbury killing off the butterflies and crocodiles, and the conflagration seemed more like justice than tragedy.

Bud Schwartz was equally impressed by the destruction of the theme park not as a moral lesson, but as a feat of brazen criminality. The torch artist had been swift and thorough; the place was engulfed in roaring, implacable flames, and there was no saving it. The man on TV said he had never witnessed such a fierce, fast-moving blaze. Bud Schwartz felt relieved and lucky and wise.

"And you wanted to stay," he said to Danny Pogue. "You wanted to ride the Jungle Jerry again."

Danny Pogue nodded solemnly and slid the chair close to the television. "We could be dead," he murmured.

"Fried," said his partner. "Fried clams."

"Hush now," Molly said. "There's no call for melodrama."

She announced that she wasn't going to ask why they'd gone to the Amazing Kingdom that night. "I don't like to pry," she said. "You're grown men, you've got your own lives."

Danny Pogue said, "It wasn't us who torched the place."

Molly McNamara smiled as if she already knew. "How's your foot, Danny?"

"It don't hardly hurt at all."

Then to Bud Schwartz: "And your hand? Is it better?"

"Gettin" there," he said, flexing the fingers.

Molly removed her glasses and rested her head against the pillows. "Nature is a wonder," she said. "Such power to renew, or to destroy. It's an awesome paradox."

"A what?" said Danny Pogue.

Molly told them to think of the fire as a natural purge, a cyclical scouring of the land. Bud Schwartz could hardly keep a straight face. He jerked his chin toward the flickering images on television, and said, "So maybe it's spontaneous combustion, huh? Maybe a bolt a lightning?"

"Anything's possible," Molly said with a twinkle. She asked Danny Pogue to switch to the Discovery Channel, which just happened to be showing a documentary about endangered Florida manatees. A mating scene was in progress as Danny Pogue adjusted the color tint.

Not tonight, thought Bud Schwartz, and got up to excuse himself.

Molly said, "There's a Dodgers game on ESPN. You can watch across the hall in Mr. McMillan's room he is in what they call a nonresponsive state, so he probably won't mind."

"Swell," Bud Schwartz muttered. "Maybe we'll go halfsies on a keg."

Danny Pogue heard none of this; he was already glued to the tube. Bud Schwartz pointed at his partner and grinned. "Look what you done to him."

Molly McNamara winked. "Go on now," she said. "I think Ojeda's pitching."

Trooper Jim Tile braked sharply when he saw the three green Jeeps. The wildlife officers had parked in a precise triangle at the intersection of Card Sound Road and County 905.

"We'll be out of the way in a minute," said Sergeant Mark Dyerson.

The rangers had gathered between the trucks in the center of the makeshift triangle. Jim Tile joined them. He noticed dogs pacing in the back of one of the Jeeps.

"Look at this," Sergeant Dyerson said.

In the middle of the road, illuminated by headlights, was a battered red collar. Jim Tile crouched to get a closer look.

"Our transmitter," the ranger explained. Imprinted on the plastic was the name Telonics MOD-500."

"What happened?" Jim Tile asked.

"The cat tore it off. Somehow."

"That's one tough animal."

"It's a first," Sergeant Dyerson said. "We've never had one that could bust the lock on the buckle."

Another officer asked, "What now?" It was the wretched plea of a man being devoured by insects.

"If the cat wants out this bad," said Sergeant Dyerson, "I figure we'll let him be."

From the south came the oscillating whine of a fire truck. Sergeant Dyerson retrieved the broken panther collar and told his men to move the Jeeps off the road. Minutes later, a hook-and-ladder rig barreled past.

Jim Tile mentioned that the theme park was on fire.

"It's breaking my heart," Sergeant Dyerson said. He handed the trooper a card. "Keep an eye out. My home number is on the back."

Jim Tile said, "All my life, I've never seen a panther."

"You probably never will," said the ranger, "and that's the crime of it." He tossed the radio collar in the back of the truck and slid behind the wheel.

"Not all the news is bad," he said. "Number Nine's got a litter of kittens over in the Fokahatchee."

"Yeah?" Jim Tile admired the wildlife officer's outlook and dedication. He was sorry his old friend had caused the man so much trouble and confusion. He said, "So this is all you do track these animals?"

"It's all I do," Sergeant Dyerson said.

To Jim Tile it sounded like a fine job, and an honorable one. He liked the notion of spending all day in the deep outdoors, away from the homicidal masses. He wondered how difficult it would be to transfer from the highway patrol to the Game and Fish.

"Don't you worry about this cat," he told Sergeant Dyerson.

"I worry about all of them."

"This one'll be all right," the trooper said. "You've got my word."

As soon as he spotted the police car, Joe told Carrie to hike up her gown and run. She followed him down the slope of the bridge and into a mangrove creek.

Breathlessly they clung to the slippery roots; only their heads stayed dry.

"Don't move," Joe Winder said.

"There's a June bug in your ear."

"Yes, I'm aware of that." He quietly dunked his face, and the beetle was swept away by the milky-blue current.

She said, "May I raise the subject of snakes?"

"We're fine." He wrapped his free arm around her waist, to hold her steady against the tide. "You're certainly being a good sport about all this," he said.

"Will you think about Orlando?"

"Sure." It was the least he could do.

The metronomic blink of the blue lights grew stronger, and soon tires crunched the loose gravel on the road; the siren died with a tremulous moan.

Winder chinned up on a mangrove root for a better view. He saw a highway patrol cruiser idling at an angle on the side of the road. The headlights dimmed, and the trooper honked three times. They heard a deep voice, and Winder recognized it: Jim Tile.

"We lucked out," he said to Carrie. "Come on, that's our ride." They climbed from the creek and sloshed out of the mangroves. Before reaching the road, they heard another man's voice and the slam of a door.

Then the patrol car started to roll.

Joe Winder sprinted ahead, waving both arms and shouting for the trooper to stop. Jim Tile calmly swerved around him and, by way of a farewell, flicked his lights as he drove past.

Winder clutched his aching rib cage and cursed spiritedly at the speeding police car. Carrie joined him on the centerline, and together they watched the flashing blue lights disappear over the crest of the Card Sound Bridge.

"Everyone's a comedian," Joe Winder said.

"Didn't you see who was in the back seat?"

"I didn't see a damn thing."

Carrie laughed. "Look what he threw out the window." She held up a gooey stick of insect repellent. The top-secret military formula.

"Do me first," she said. "Every square inch."