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On the morning of July 17, Danny Pogue awoke in a cold sweat, his T-shirt soaked from neck to navel. He kicked the covers off the bed and saw the lump of gauze around his foot. It wasn't a dream. He limped to the window and from there he could see everything: the Olympic-sized swimming pool, the freshly painted tennis courts, the shady shuffleboard gazebo. Everywhere he looked there were old people with snowy heads and pale legs and fruit-colored Bermuda shorts. All the men wore socks with their sandals, and all the women wore golf visors and oversized sunglasses.

"Mother of Christ," said Danny Pogue. He hollered for his partner to come quick.

Bud Schwartz ambled in, looking settled and well rested. He was spooning out half a grapefruit, cupped in the palm of one hand. "Do you believe this fucking place?" he said to Danny Pogue. "What a gas."

"We gotta get out."

"How come?"

"Just look." Danny Pogue pointed out the window.

"So now you got a problem with senior citizens? What they don't have the right to have fun? Besides, there's some young people that live here, too. I saw a couple a hot ones out by the swimming pool. Major titties."

"I don't care," mumbled Danny Pogue.

"Hey," Bud Schwartz said. "She shot your foot, not your weenie."

"Where is she?"

"Long gone. You want some lunch? She loaded up at the Publix, you should see. Steaks, chops, beer we're set for a couple a weeks, easy."

Danny Pogue hopped back to the bed and peeled off the damp shirt. He spotted a brand-new pair of crutches propped in the corner. He said, "Bud, I'm gonna split. Seriously, I'm taking off."

"I can give you ten thousand reasons not to."

"Speaking of which."

"She's bringing a grand for each of us, just like she promised," said Bud Schwartz. "Good faith money is what she called it."

"Invisible is what I call it."

"Hey, lighten the fuck up. She's an old lady, Danny. Old ladies never lie." Bud Schwartz lobbed the grapefruit skin into some kind of designer wastebasket. "What's wrong with you, man? This is like a vacation, all expenses paid. Look at this freaking condo two bedrooms, two bathrooms. Microwave in the kitchen, Cinemax on the cable. Say what you will, the old geezer knows how to live."

"Who is she?" Danny Pogue asked.

"Who cares?"

"I care. She shot me."

Bud Schwartz said, "Just some crazy, rich old broad. Don't worry about it."

"It's not you that got shot."

"She won't do it again, Danny. She got it out of her system." Bud Schwartz wiped his hands on the butt of his jeans to get the grapefruit juice off. He said, "She was pissed, that's all. On account of us losing the rats."

Danny Pogue said, "Well, screw that deal. I'm leaving." He made a move for the crutches but faltered, hot and dizzy. Molly McNamara had fed him some pain pills late last night; that much he remembered.

"I don't know where you think you're going," said Bud Schwartz. "The truck's history."

"I'll hitch," said Danny Pogue woozily.

"Look in the mirror. Your own mother wouldn't pick you up. The Hell's Fucking Angels wouldn't pick you up."

"Somebody'll stop," Danny Pogue said. "Especially with me on them crutches."

"Oh, sure."

"Maybe even some girls." Danny Pogue eased himself back on the pillow. He took deep breaths and tried to blink away the haze in his brain.

"Have another codeine," said Bud Schwartz. "Here, she got a whole bottle." He went to the kitchen and came back with a cold Busch.

Danny Pogue swallowed two more pills and slurped at the beer can noisily. He closed his eyes and said, "She ain't never gonna pay us, Bud."

"Sure she is," said his partner. "She's loaded, just look at this place. You should see the size of the TV."

"We better get away while we can."

"Go back to sleep," said Bud Schwartz. "I'll be down at the pool."

The Mothers of Wilderness met every other Tuesday at a public library in Cutler Ridge. This week the main item on the agenda was the proposed bulldozing of seventy-three acres of mangroves to make room for the back nine of a championship golf course on the shore of North Key Largo. The Mothers of Wilderness strenuously opposed the project, and had begun to map a political strategy to obstruct it. They pursued such crusades with unflagging optimism, despite the fact that they had never succeeded in stopping a single development. Not one. The builders ignored them. Zoning boards ignored them. County commissioners listened politely, nodded intently, then ignored them, too. Of all the environmental groups fighting to preserve what little remained of Florida, the Mothers of Wilderness was regarded as the most radical and shrill and intractable. It was also, unfortunately, the smallest of the groups and thus the easiest to brush off.

Still, the members were nothing if not committed. Molly McNamara steadfastly had refused all offers to merge her organization with the Audubon Society or the Sierra Club or the Friends of the Everglades. She wanted no part of coalitions because coalitions compromised. She enjoyed being alone on the fringe, enjoyed being the loose cannon that establishment environmentalists feared. The fact that the Mothers of Wilderness was politically impotent did not diminish Molly McNamara's passion, though occasionally it ate at her pride.

She ran the meetings with brusque efficiency, presiding over a membership that tended to be retired and liberal and well-to-do. For its size, the Mothers of Wilderness was exceedingly well financed; Molly knew this was why the other environmental groups wooed her, in hopes of a merger. The Mothers had bucks.

They had hired a hotshot Miami land-use lawyer to fight the golf course project, which was called Falcon Trace. The lawyer, whose name was Spacci, stood up at the meeting to update the Mothers on the progress of the lawsuit, which, typically, was about to be thrown out of court. The case was being heard in Monroe County specifically, Key West where many of the judges were linked by conspiracy or simple inbreeding to the crookedest politicians. Moreover, the zoning lawyer admitted he was having a terrible time ascertaining the true owners of the Falcon Trace property; he had gotten as far as a blind trust in Dallas, then stalled.

Molly McNamara thanked Spacci for his report and made a motion to authorize another twenty thousand dollars for legal fees and investigative expenses. It passed unanimously.

After the meeting, Molly took the lawyer aside and said, "Next time I want to see some results. I want the names of these bastards."

"What about the lawsuit?"

"File a new one," Molly said. "You ever considered going federal?"

"How?" asked Spacci. "On what grounds?"

Pinching his elbow, Molly led him to an easel behind the rostrum. Propped on the easel was an aerial map of North Key Largo. Molly pointed and said, "See? There's where they want the golf course. And right here is a national wildlife refuge. That's your federal jurisdiction, Counselor."

The lawyer plucked a gold pen from his breast pocket and did some pointing of his own. "And right here, Ms. McNamara, is a two-thousand-acre amusement park that draws three million tourists every year. We'd be hard pressed to argue that one lousy golf course would be more disruptive to the habitat than what's already there a major vacation resort."

Molly snapped, "You're the damn attorney. Think of something."

Bitterly she remembered the years she had fought the Kingsbury project; the Mothers of Wilderness had been the only group that had never given up. Audubon and the others had realized immediately that protest was futile; the prospect of a major theme park to compete with Disney World carried an orgasmic musk to local chambers of commerce. The most powerful of powerful civic leaders clung to the myth that Mickey Mouse was responsible for killing the family tourist trade in South Florida, strangling the peninsula so that all southbound station wagons stopped in Orlando. What did Miami have to offer as competition? Porpoises that could pitch a baseball with their blow-holes? Wisecracking parrots on unicycles? Enjoyable diversions, but scarcely in the same high-tech league with Disney. The Mouse's sprawling self-contained empire sucked tourists' pockets inside out; they came, they spent until there was nothing left to spend; then they went home happy. To lifelong Floridians it was a dream concept: fleecing a snowbird in such a way that he came back for more. Astounding! So when Francis X. Kingsbury unveiled his impressive miniature replica of the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills the Wet Willy water flume, the Magic Mansion, Orky the Killer Whale, Jungle Jerry, and so on roars of exultation were heard from Palm Beach to Big Pine.

The only cry of dismay came from the Mothers of Wilderness, who were (as usual) ignored.

"No golf course," Molly told Spacci the lawyer, "and no more chickenshit excuses from you." She sent him away with the wave of a blue-veined hand.

After the rank and file had gone home, Molly gathered the board of directors in the back of the library. Five women and two men, all nearly as gray as Molly, they sat in molded plastic chairs and sipped herbal tea while Molly told them what had happened.

It was a bizarre and impossible scheme, but no one asked Molly why she had done it. They knew why. In a fussy tone, one of the Mothers said: "This time you went too far."

"It's under control," Molly insisted. "Except for the voles. They're not under control." Another Mother asked: "Any chance of finding them?"

"You never know," said Molly.

"Horseshit," said the first Mother. "They're gone for good. Dead, alive, it doesn't matter if we can't locate the damn things."

Molly said, "Please. Keep your voice down."

The second Mother: "What about these two men? Where are they now?"

"My condo," Molly replied. "Up at Eagle Ridge."

"Lord have mercy."

"That's enough," said Molly sharply. "I said it's under control, and it's under control."

A silence fell over the small group. No one wished to challenge her authority, but this time things had really gotten out of hand. This time there was a chance they could all go to jail. I'll have some more tea," the first Mother said finally, "and then I'd love to hear your new plan. You do have one?"

"Of course I do," said Molly McNamara. "For heaven's sake."

When Joe Winder got to work, Charles Chelsea was waiting in yet another blue oxford shirt. He was sitting on the edge of Winder's desk in a pose of casual superiority. A newspaper was freshly folded under one arm. "Fine job on the press release," Chelsea said. "I changed a word or two, but otherwise it went out just like you wrote it."

Calmly Joe Winder said, "Which word or two did you change?"

"Oh, I improved Mr. Kingsbury's comments. Couple of adverbs here and there."

"Fine." Winder wasn't so surprised. It was well known that Chelsea invented all of Francis X. Kingsbury's quotes. Kingsbury was one of those men who rarely spoke in complete sentences. Didn't have to. For publicity purposes this made him perfectly useless and unquotable.

Chelsea said, "I also updated the info on Robbie Raccoon. Turns out he got a mild concussion from that blow to the head."

Winder forced a smile and set his briefcase on the desk. "It's a she, Charlie. And she was fine when I spoke to her last night. Not even a bruise."

Chelsea's voice took on a scolding tone. "Joey, you know the gender rule. If it's a male character, we always refer to it with masculine pronouns regardless of who's inside the costume. I explained all this the day you were hired. It comes straight from Mr. X. Speaking of which, weren't you supposed to get a haircut?"

"Don't be a dork, Charlie."

"What's a dork?"

"You're not serious."

Charles Chelsea said, "Really, tell me. You called me a dork, I'd like to know what exactly that is."

"It's a Disney character," said Joe Winder. "Daffy Dork." He opened the briefcase and fumbled urgently for his sinus medicine. "Anyway, Charlie, the lady in the coon suit didn't have a concussion. That's a lie, and it's a stupid lie because it's so easy to check. Some newspaper reporter is going to make a few calls and we're going to look sleazy and dishonest, all because you had to exaggerate."

"No exaggeration," Charles Chelsea said, stiffening. "I spoke with Robbie Raccoon myself, first thing this morning. He said he got dizzy and sick overnight. Doctor said it's probably a concussion."

Winder popped two pills into his mouth and said, "You're amazing."

"We'll have a neurologist's report this afternoon, in case anybody wants to see. Notarized, too." Chelsea looked pleased with himself. "Mild concussion, Joe. Don't believe me, just ask Robbie."

"What'd you do, threaten to fire her? Bust her down to the elf patrol?"

Charles Chelsea stood up, shot his cuffs, gave Joe Winder his coldest, hardest look. "I came down here to thank you for doing such outstanding work, and look what I get. More of your cynicism. Just because you had a rotten night, Joey, it's no reason to rain on everyone else's parade."

Did the man really say that? Winder wondered. Did he really accuse me of raining on his parade? "That's the only reason you're here?" Winder said. "To thank me?"

"Well, not entirely." Charles Chelsea removed the newspaper from under his arm, unfolded it and handed it to Joe Winder. "Check the last three paragraphs."

It was the story about the theft of the blue-tongued mango voles. The Herald had stripped it across the top of the Local News page, a feature play. "Hey," Winder said brightly, "they even used one of our pictures."

"Never mind that, just read the last three graphs."

The newspaper story ended like this:

An anonymous caller identifying himself as an animal-rights activist telephoned the Miami office of the Associated Press late Monday and took credit for the incident at the popular theme park. The caller claimed to be a member of the radical Wildlife Rescue Corps.

"We freed the voles because they were being exploited," he said. "Francis Kingsbury doesn't care about saving the species, he just wanted another stupid tourist attraction."

Officials at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills were unavailable for comment late Monday night.

Joe Winder gave the newspaper back to Charles Chelsea and said, "What a kick in the nuts. I'll bet the boss man is going batshit."

"You find this amusing?"

"Don't you?" Winder asked. "I guess not."

"No," said Chelsea. He refolded the newspaper and returned it to his armpit. "What do you suggest in the way of a response?"

"I suggest we forget the fucking voles and get on with our lives."

"This is serious."

Winder said, "So I was right, Kingsbury's on a tear. Then I would suggest you tell him that we're waiting to see if there's any truth to this claim. Tell him that if we say anything now, it might turn around and bite us in the rat hole."

Chelsea started rubbing his chin, a sign of possible cognition. "Go on," he told Winder. "I'm listening."

"For instance, suppose the real Wildlife Rescue Corps calls up and denies any involvement. Hell, Charlie, there's a good chance the caller was a crank. Had nothing to do with the group. To play it safe, we don't respond for now. We say absolutely nothing."

"But if it turns out to be true?"

"Then," said Joe Winder, "we express outrage that any organization, no matter how worthy its cause, would commit a violent felony and endanger the lives of innocent bystanders."

Chelsea nodded enthusiastically; he liked what he was hearing. "Not just any bystanders," he said. "Tourists."

Winder went on: "We would also recount Mr. Kingsbury's many philanthropic gifts to the ASPCA, the World Wildlife Fund, Save the Beavers, whatever. And we would supply plenty of testimonial quotes from eminent naturalists supporting our efforts on behalf of the endangered mango vole."

"Excellent," Charles Chelsea said. "Joe, that's perfect."

"Pure unalloyed genius," Winder said.

"Let's hope it doesn't come to that," Chelsea said. "You don't want to spend the rest of the week writing about rodents. Too much like covering City Hall, right?"

Joe Winder chuckled politely. He could tell Chelsea was worried about pitching it to Kingsbury.

In a hopeful voice, Chelsea said, "You think the guy was really just a nut? This guy who called the AP?"

"Who knows," Winder said. "We've certainly got our share."

Charles Chelsea nodded hopefully. A simple nut would be fine with him, PR-wise; it's the zealots you had to worry about.

"The only thing to do is wait," said Joe Winder. Already he could feel his sinuses drying up. He felt suddenly clearheaded, chipper, even optimistic. Maybe it was the medicine flushing his head, or maybe it was something else.

Like having a real honest-to-God story, for a change. A story getting good and hot.

Just like the old days.

THREE | NativeTongue | c