Chelsea had a stark, irrational fear of Francis X. Kingsbury. It was not Kingsbury's physical appearance (for he was gnomish and flabby) but his volcanically profane temper that caused Chelsea so much anxiety. Kingsbury long ago had practically ceased speaking in complete sentences, but his broken exclamations could be daunting and acerbic. The words struck venomously at Charles Chelsea's insecurities, and made him tremble.
On the afternoon of July 17, Chelsea finished his lunch, threw up, flossed his teeth and walked briskly to Kingsbury's office. Kingsbury was leaning over the desk; the great man's sleeves were rolled up to reveal the famous lewd tattoo on his doughy left forearm. The other arm sparkled with a gold Robbie Raccoon wristwatch, with emerald insets. Today's surfer-blond hairpiece was longish and curly.
Kingsbury grunted at Charles Chelsea and said: "Wildlife Rescue Corps?" He raised his hands. "Well?"
Chelsea said, "The group exists, but the phone call could be a crank. We're checking it out."
"What's this exploitation – shit, we're talking about, what, some kind of rodent or such goddamn thing."
Not even close to a quotable sentence, Chelsea thought. It was astounding – the man spoke in over-torqued, expletive-laden fragments that somehow made perfect sense. At all times, Charles Chelsea knew exactly what Francis X. Kingsbury was talking about.
The publicity man said, "Don't worry, sir, the situation is being contained. We're ready for any contingency."
Kingsbury made a small fist. "Damage control," he said.
"Our top gun," Chelsea said. "His name is Joe Winder, and he's a real pro. Offering the reward money was his idea, sir. The AP led with it this morning, too."
Kingsbury sat down. He fingered the florid tip of his bulbous nose. "These animals, there's still a chance maybe?"
Chelsea could feel a chilly dampness spreading in deadly crescents from his armpits. "It's unlikely, sir. One of them is dead for sure. Shot by the highway patrol. Some tourists apparently mistook it for a rat."
"Terrific," said Kingsbury.
"The other one, likewise. The bandits threw it in the window of a Winnebago camper."
Kingsbury peered from beneath dromedary lids. "Don't," he said, exhaling noisily. "This is like...no, don't bother."
"You might as well know," said Chelsea. "It was a church group from Boca Raton in the Winnebago. They beat the poor thing to death with a golf umbrella. Then they threw it off the Card Sound Bridge."
There, Chelsea thought. He had done it. Stood up and delivered the bad news. Stood up like a man.
Francis X. Kingsbury entwined his hands and said: "Who knows about this? Knows that we know? Anybody?"
"You mean anybody on the outside? No." Charles
Chelsea paused. "Well, except the highway patrol. And I took care of them with some free passes to the Kingdom."
"No, sir. Nobody knows that we know the voles are dead."
"Fine," said Francis X. Kingsbury. "Good time to up the reward."
"Make it a million bucks. Six zeros, if I'm not mistaken."
Chelsea took out a notebook and a Cross pen, and began to write. "That's one million dollars for the safe return of the missing voles."
"Which are dead."
"Simple, hell. Very simple."
"It's a most generous offer," said Charles Chelsea. "Bullshit," Kingsbury said. "It's PR, whatever. Stuff for the fucking AP."
"But your heart's in the right place." Impatiently Kingsbury pointed toward the door. "Fast," he said. "Before I get sick."
Chelsea was startled. Backing away from Kingsbury's desk, he said, "I'm sorry, sir. Is it something I said?"
"No, something you are." Kingsbury spoke flatly, with just a trace of disgust.
On the way back to his office, Charles Chelsea stopped in the executive washroom and threw up again.
Like many wildly successful Floridians, Francis X. Kingsbury was a transplant. He had moved to the Sunshine State in balding middle age, alone and uprooted, never expecting that he would become a multimillionaire.
And, like so many new Floridians, Kingsbury was a felon on the run. Before arriving in Miami, he was known by his real name of Frankie King. Not Frank, but Frankie; his mother had named him after the singer Frankie Laine. All his life Frankie King had yearned to change his name to something more distinguished, something with weight and social bearing. A racketeering indictment (twenty-seven counts) out of Brooklyn was as good an excuse as any.
Once he was arrested, Frankie King exuberantly began ratting on his co-conspirators, which included numerous high-ranking members of the John Gotti crime organization. Frankie's testimony conveniently glossed the fact that it was he, not the surly Zuboni brothers, who had personally flown to San Juan and picked up the twenty-seven crate-loads of bootleg "educational" videotapes that were eventually sold to the New York City school system for $119.95 apiece. Under oath, Frankie King indignantly blamed the Zubonis and, indirectly, John Gotti himself for failing to inspect the shipment once it had arrived at JFK. On the witness stand, Frankie expressed tearful remorse that, in TV classrooms from Queens to Staten Island, students expecting to see "Kermit's Wild West Adventure" were instead exposed to a mattress-level montage of Latin porn star Pina Kolada deepthroating a semi-pro soccer team.
The Zuboni brothers and a cluster of dull-eyed knee-cappers were swiftly convicted by a horrified jury. The reward for Frankie King's cooperation was a suspended sentence, ten years' probation and a new identity of his choosing: Francis X. Kingsbury. Frankie felt the "X" was a classy touch; he decided it should stand for Xavier.
When the man from the Witness Relocation Program told him that Miami would be his new home, Frankie King thought he had died and gone to heaven. Miami! Frankie couldn't believe his good fortune; he had no idea the U.S. government could be so generous. What Frankie did not know was that Miami was the prime relocation site for scores of scuzzy federal snitches (on the theory that South Florida was a place where just about any dirtbag would blend in smoothly with the existing riffraff). Frankie King continued to entertain the false notion that he was somebody special in the witness program, a regular Joe Valachi, until he saw the accommodations provided by his government benefactors: a one-bedroom apartment near the railroad tracks in beautiful downtown Naranja.
When Frankie complained about the place, FBI agents reminded him that the alternative was to return to New York and take his chances that John Gotti was a compassionate and forgiving fellow. With this on his mind, Francis X. Kingsbury began a new life.
Like all Floridians with time on their hands, he went to night school and got his real-estate license. It was an entirely new racket, and Frankie worked at it tirelessly; first he specialized in small commercial properties, then citrus groves and farmlands. Doggedly he worked his way east toward the good stuff – oceanfront, the Big O. He went from condos to prime residential estates in no time flat.
Francis X. Kingsbury had found a new niche. He was, undeniably, a whiz at selling Florida real estate. In five short years he had accumulated more money than in an entire lifetime of mob bunko, jukebox skimming and mail fraud. He had a home down on Old Cutler, a beautiful young wife and a closetful of mustard blazers. But he wanted more.
One day he walked into the boardroom of Kingsbury Realty and announced that he was selling the business. "I'm ready to move up in the world," he told his startled partners. "I'm ready to become a developer."
Six months later, Kingsbury stood before a luncheon meeting of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and unveiled his model of the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills. It was the first time in his life that Frankie had gotten a standing ovation. He blushed and said: "Florida is truly the land of opportunity."
His probation officer, standing near the salad bar, had to bite back tears.
"This is a very bad idea, Charlie." Joe Winder was talking about the phony million-dollar reward. "A very bad idea. And cynical, I might add."
Over the phone, Chelsea said: "Don't give me any lectures. I need five hundred words by tomorrow morning."
"This is nuts."
"And don't overdo it."
"This is not just dumb," continued Joe Winder, "it's dishonest. The blue-tongued mango voles are dead, Charlie. Everybody at the park is talking about it."
Chelsea said, "Mr. X is adamant. He considers the money a symbolic gesture of his commitment to preserving the environment."
"Did you write that yourself?" Winder asked. "That's fucking awful, Charlie. Symbolic gesture! You ought to be shot."
"Joey, don't talk to me that way. This thing was your idea, offering a reward."
"I was wrong," Winder said. "It was a big mistake."
"No, it was genius. The AP had it all over the wires."
"Look, I'm trying to save your ass," Winder said. "And mine, too. Listen to me. This morning, a man with a cardboard box showed up at the front gate of the Amazing Kingdom. Said he'd found the missing voles. Said he'd come to collect his ten-thousand-dollar reward. Listen to me, Charlie. Know what was in the box? Rabbits. Two baby rabbits."
"So what? They don't look anything like a vole."
"They do when you cut their ears off, Charlie. That's what the sonofabitch had done. Cut the ears off a couple of little tiny bunny rabbits."
Charles Chelsea gasped.
"I know, I know," Winder said, "Think about what's going to happen we dangle a million bucks out there. Think of the freaks and sadists and degenerates stampeding this place."
"Holy Christ," said Chelsea.
"Now," said Joe Winder, "think of the headlines."
"I'll talk to Kingsbury."
"Maybe I'll bring you along."
"No thank you."
"You owe me," said Chelsea. "Please. I've been good to you, Joe. Remember who hired you in the first place."
Thanks for reminding me, Winder thought, for the two-thousandth time. "I'm not the right man to deal with Mr. X," he said. "I make a lousy first impression."
"You're right," said Chelsea, rethinking his plan. "Tell me one thing – that sicko with the bunny rabbits...what happened?"
"Don't worry," said Winder. "We paid him to go away."
"How much? Not the whole ten grand?"
"No, not ten grand." Winder sighed. "Try fifty bucks. And he was delighted, Charlie. Positively thrilled."
"Thank God for that." There was a brittle pause on Chelsea's end. "Joe?"
"This is turning into something real bad, isn't it?"
Late in the afternoon, Joe Winder decided to drive down to the Rare Animal Pavilion and find out more about the voles. He needed someone to take his mind off the rabbit episode, which made him heartsick. He should've seen it coming – naturally some greedy psychopath would mutilate helpless bunny rabbits for ten lousy thousand fucking dollars. It's South Florida, isn't it? Winter should've anticipated the worst. That's why Chelsea had hired him, for his native instinct.
The door to the vole lab was locked but the lights were on. Winder knocked twice and got no answer. He could hear a telephone ringing on the other side of the door. It stopped briefly, then began ringing again. He used his car keys to rap sharply on the glass, but there was no sign of Koocher. Winder figured the doctor was taking a late lunch.
He strolled out to the pavilion, where he found a group of tourists milling around the empty mango-vole exhibit. A tarpaulin had been hung to cover the mess, but somebody had lifted a corner to peek inside the enclosure, which was littered with glass and smudged with fingerprint dust. A yellow police ribbon lay crumpled like a dead snake on the porch of the vole hutch. Some of the tourists were snapping pictures of the scene of the crime.
A voice behind Joe Winder said, "You work here?"
It was an old woman wearing a floppy pink Easter hat and a purse the size of a saddlebag. She eyed Joe Winder's ID badge, which was clipped to his belt.
"You a security man?" the woman asked.
Winder tried to remember what Chelsea had told him about speaking to park visitors; some gooey greeting that all employees were supposed to say. Welcome to the Amazing Kingdom. How can I help you? Or was it: How may I help you? No, that wasn't it. How can we help you?
Eventually Joe Winder said, "I work in Publicity. Is something wrong?"
The old lady made a clucking noise and foraged in her enormous purse. "I've got a little something for you."
In a helpful tone Winder said, "The Lost and Found is down by the killer-whale tank."
"This isn't lost and it isn't found." The old lady produced an envelope. "Here," she said, pressing it into Joe Winder's midsection. "And don't try to follow me."
She turned and scuttled off, one hand atop her head, holding the Easter hat in place. Winder stuffed the envelope into his pocket and started after her. "Hey! Wait a second."
He had taken only three steps when a fist came out of somewhere and smashed him behind the right ear. He pitched forward on the walkway, skidding briefly on his face. When he awoke, Joe Winder was staring at shoes: Reeboks, loafers, sandals, Keds, orthopedics, Hush Puppies, flip-flops. The tourists had gathered in a murmuring semicircle around him. A young man knelt at his side, asking questions in German.
Winder sat up. "Did anybody see who hit me?" His cheek stung, and he tasted Hood on his lower lip.
"Beeg orange!" sputtered a woman wearing two cameras around her neck. "Beeg orange man!"
"Swell," Winder said. "Did he have a cape? A ray gun?"
The young German tourist patted him on the shoulder and said: "You okay, ja?"
"Yah," Winder muttered. "Fall down go boom."
He picked himself up, waved idiotically at his audience and retreated to the men's room. There he tore open the old lady's envelope and studied the message, which was typed double-spaced on ordinary notebook paper. It said: "WE DID IT. WE'RE GLAD. LONG LIVE THE VOLES."
It was signed by the Wildlife Rescue Corps.
With copies, Joe Winder noted glumly, to every major news organization on the planet.
Bud Schwartz shook Danny Pogue awake and said, "Look who's here. I told you not to worry."
Molly McNamara was in the kitchen, fussing around. Danny Pogue was on the sofa in the living room. He had fallen asleep watching Lady Chatterley IV on Cinemax.
Bud Schwartz sat down, grinning. "She brought the money, too," he said.
"All of it?"
"No, just the grand. Like she said before."
"You mean the two grand," Danny Pogue said. "One for each of us." He didn't entirely trust his partner.
Bud Schwartz said, "Yeah, that's what I meant. A thousand bucks each."
"Then let's see it."
Molly came in, drying her hands on a flowered towel. She looked at Danny Pogue as if he were a dog that was supposed to stay off the good furniture. She said, "How's that foot?"
"Hurts." Danny Pogue frowned. "Hurts like a bitch."
"He's all out of them pills," added Bud Schwartz.
"Already?" Molly sounded concerned. "You finished the whole bottle?"
"Danny's got what you call a high resistance to pharmaceuticals," Bud Schwartz said. "We had to double the dose."
"Bull," said Danny Pogue. "Bud here just helped hisself."
"Is that true?" asked Molly McNamara. "Did you take some of your friend's pills?"
"Aw, come on," said Bud Schwartz. "Jesus Christ, there's nothing else to do around here. I was bored stiff."
"That was prescription medicine," Molly said sternly.
She went back to the kitchen and got her handbag. It was the largest handbag that Bud Schwartz or Danny Pogue had ever seen. Molly took out another plastic bottle of codeine pills and handed them to Danny Pogue. Then she took out her gun and shot Bud Schwartz once in the left hand.
He fell down, shaking his arm as if it were on fire.
In a whisper Danny Pogue said, "Oh Lord Jesus." He felt the blood flooding out of his brain, and saw the corners of the room get fuzzy.
Molly said, "Am I getting through to you fellows?" She returned the gun to her purse. "There will be no illegal drug activity in this condominium, is that clear? The owners' association has very strict rules. Here, take this." She handed Danny Pogue two packets of cash. Each packet was held together with a fresh bank wrapper.
"That's one thousand each, just like I promised," she said. Then, turning to Bud Schwartz: "Does it hurt?"
"The fuck do you think?" He was squeezing the wounded purple hand between his knees. "Damn right it hurts!"
"In that case, you may borrow your friend's pills. But only as needed." Then Molly McNamara put on her floppy pink Easter hat and said good night.
Nina was naked, kneeling on Joe Winder's back and rubbing his shoulders. "See, isn't this better than sex?"
"No," he said, into the pillow. "Good, but not better."
"It's my night off," Nina said. "All week long, all I do is talk about it."
"We don't have to talk," Joe Winder mumbled. "Let's just do."
"Joe, I need a break from it." She kneaded his neck so ferociously that he let out a cry. "You understand, don't you?"
"Sure," he said. It was the second time in a week that they'd had this conversation. Winder had a feeling that Nina was burning out on her job; practically nothing aroused her lately. All she wanted to do was sleep, and of course she talked in her sleep, said the most tantalizing things.
It was driving Joe Winder crazy. "I had a particularly lousy day," he said. "I was counting on you to wear me out."
Nina climbed off his back. "I love you," she said, slipping her long legs under the sheets, "but at this moment I don't have a single muscle that's the least bit interested."
This, from the same wonderful woman who once left fingernail grooves in the blades of a ceiling fan. Winder groaned in self-pity.
From the other side of the bed came Nina's delicious voice: "Tell me the weirdest thing that happened to you today."
It was a bedtime ritual, exchanging anecdotes about work. Joe Winder said: "Some creep claimed he found the missing voles, except they weren't voles. They were baby rabbits. He was trying to con us." Winder left out the grisly details.
"That's a tough one to beat," Nina remarked.
"Also, I got slugged in the head."
"Really?" she said. "Last night I had a caller jerk himself off in eleven seconds flat. Miriam said it might be a new world's record."
"You timed it?"
"Sort of." Playfully she reached between his legs and tweaked him. "Miriam has an official Olympic stopwatch."
"Nina, I want you to get another job. I'm serious."
She said, "That reminds me – some strange guy phoned for you this afternoon. A doctor from the park. He called twice."
"Yeah," said Nina. "Interesting name. Anyway, he made it sound important. I told him to try you at the office, but he said no. He wouldn't leave a message, either, just said he'd call back. The second time he said to tell you a man from Security was in the lab."
Joe Winder lifted his head off the pillow. "A man from Security?"
"That's what he said."
"Anything else?" Winder was thinking about the empty laboratory: lights on, phone ringing. Maybe he should've tried the back door.
"I told him you'd be home soon, but he said he couldn't call back. He said he was leaving with the guy from Security." Nina propped herself on one elbow. "Joe, what's going on over there?"
"I thought I knew," said Winder, "but obviously I don't."
With a fingertip she traced a feathery line down his cheek. "Do me a favor," she said.
"I know what you're going to say."
She scooted closer, under the covers, and pressed against him. "But things are going so great."
Winder kissed her on the tip of the nose, and started to roll out of bed.
"Joe, don't go crazy on me," Nina said. "Please."
He rolled back, into her arms. "All right," he said. "Not just yet."