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A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z


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SIX

The next morning, in the hallway by the water fountain, Charles Chelsea seized Joe Winder by the sleeve and tugged him into the office. Two men shared opposite ends of Chelsea's leather sofa one was the immense Pedro Luz, chief of Security for the Amazing Kingdom, and the other was a serious-looking fellow with a square haircut and a charcoal suit.

"Joe," Chelsea said, "this gentleman is from the FBI."

"I can see that."

Chelsea cleared his throat. "This is Agent Hawkins."

Joe Winder stuck out his hand. "Billy, isn't it? You worked a Coral Gables Savings job about four years back."

The agent smiled cautiously. "And you were with the Herald."

"Right."

"Dated one of the tellers."

"Right again."

Charles Chelsea was trying to set some sort of record for clearing his throat. "What a coincidence that you two guys know each other."

Joe Winder sat down and stretched his legs. "Bank robbery. Billy here was the lead agent. Funny story, too it was the Groucho guy."

"Yeah," said Hawkins, loosening up. "Wore the big nose and the eyebrows, even carried a cigar. We finally caught up with him in Clearwater."

"No kidding?" Winder said, knowing that it was driving Chelsea crazy, all this friendly conversation with a real FBI man. "All the way up in Clearwater?"

"Gentlemen," Chelsea cut in, "if you don't mind."

"What is it, Charlie?"

"Agent Hawkins is here at Mr. Kingsbury's personal request." Chelsea lowered his voice. "Joe, there were three notes delivered to employees in the park. Each was signed by this Wildlife Rescue Corps."

Winder reached in his pocket. "You mean like this?" He handed his copy to Billy Hawkins. He told him what had happened at the Rare Animal Pavilion the old lady in the Easter bonnet, the phantom punch. Hawkins took it all down in a notebook.

Chelsea tried to contain his irritation. "Why didn't you report this to Security?" he asked Joe Winder.

"Because I didn't want to interrupt Pedro's nap."

Pedro Luz darkened. Every now and then he dozed off in the security office. "All you had to do was ring the buzzer," he snapped at Winder. He glanced at the FBI man, whose expression remained impassive and nonjudgmental. "I've had a touch of the flu," Pedro Luz added defensively. "The medicine makes me sleepy." For a large man he had a high tinny voice.

"Never mind." said Charles Chelsea. "The point is, everybody's calling up for comment. The networks. The wires. We're under siege, Joe."

Winder felt his headache coming back. Agent Billy Hawkins admitted that the federal government didn't know much about the Wildlife Rescue Corps.

"Most of these groups seem to specialize in rodents," the agent said. "Laboratory rats, mostly. Universities, pharmaceutical houses those are the common targets. What usually happens, they break in at night and free the animals."

"But we weren't doing experiments." Chelsea was exasperated. "We treated Vance and Violet as royalty."

"Who?" the agent said.

"The voles," Joe Winder explained cheerfully.

Charles Chelsea continued to whine. "Why have they singled out the Amazing Kingdom? We didn't abuse these creatures. Quite the opposite."

"You do any vivisections here?" asked Agent Hawkins. "These groups are quite vocal against vivisection."

Chelsea paled. "Vivisection? Christ, we gave the little bastards fresh corn on the cob every morning. Sometimes even citrus!"

"Well, this is what we've got." Hawkins flipped backwards in his notebook. "Two white males ages twenty-five to thirty-five, fleeing the scene in a 1979 blue Ford pickup, license GPP-B06. The registration comes back to a convicted burglar whose current alias is Buddy Michael Schwartz. I might add that Mr. Schwartz's rap sheet shows no history of a social conscience with regard to animal rights, or any other."

"Somebody hired him," Joe Winder said.

"Most likely," agreed the FBI man. "Anyway, they dragged the truck out of a rock pit this morning. No bodies."

"Any sign of the voles?"

Billy Hawkins allowed himself a slight frown. "We believe the animals are dead." He handed Winder copies of the highway patrol reports, which described the incident with the tourist family in the red LeBaron, as well as the subsequent Winnebago attack. As Winder scanned the reports, Charles Chelsea reminded him to keep the news under his hat.

Agent Hawkins said, "I heard something on the radio about a million-dollar reward."

"Right!" Winder said.

"How can you do that," the "FBI man said, "when you know these animals are dead?"

Joe Winder was having a wonderful time. "Go ahead," he said to Charles Chelsea. "Explain to the gentleman."

"Where's Koocher?" Chelsea grumbled. "I left about a dozen messages."

"Let's ask Pedro," said Joe Winder. "He sent one of his boys over to the lab yesterday. Must've had a reason."

Charles Chelsea folded his hands on the desk, waiting. Agent Billy Hawkins turned slightly on the couch to get a better angle on the security chief. Joe Winder arched his eyebrows and said, "How about it, Pedro? Something else happen at the Rare Animal Pavilion?"

Pedro Luz scowled, his tiny black eyes receding under the ledge of his forehead. "I don't know what you're talking about," he said. "Nothing happened nowhere." He fumbled with his clipboard. "See? There is no report."


The Security Department at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills was staffed exclusively by corrupt ex-policemen, of which there was a steady supply in South Florida. The chief of Security, Pedro Luz, was a black-haired pinheaded giant of a young man who had been fired from the Miami Police for stealing cash and cocaine from drug dealers, then pushing them out of a Beech-craft high over the Everglades. Pedro Luz's conviction had been overturned by an appeals court, and the charges ultimately dropped when the government's key witness failed to appear for the new trial. The witness's absence was later explained when bits and pieces of his body were found in a shrimper's net off Key West, although there was no evidence linking this sad turn of events to Pedro Luz himself.

Once the corruption and murder charges had been dismissed, Pedro Luz promptly sued the police department to reclaim his old job, plus back wages and vacation time. Meanwhile, to keep his hand in law enforcement, Pedro Luz went to work at Francis X. Kingsbury's vacation theme park. The pay was only $8.50 an hour, but as a perk Pedro was given free access to the executive gym, where he spent hours of company time lifting weights and taking anabolic steroids. This leisurely regimen was interrupted by the embarrassing daylight theft of the prized voles and a personal communication of urgency from Francis X. Kingsbury himself. Chief Pedro Luz immediately put the security staff on double shifts, and rented a cot for himself in the office.

Which is where he snoozed at one-thirty in the afternoon when he heard a knock on the bulletproof glass.

Pedro Luz sat up slowly and swung his thick legs off the bed. He stood up, strapped on his gun, straightened the shoulders of his uniform shirt. The knocking continued.

Through the glass, Pedro Luz saw a wiry brown man in a sweaty tank top. The man battled a spastic tic on one side of his face; it looked as if a wasp were loose in one cheek.

Pedro Luz opened the door and said, "What do you want?"

"I'm here for the money," the man said, twitching. He clutched a grocery bag to his chest. "The million dollars."

"Go away," said Pedro Luz.

"Don't you even want to see?"

"The voles are dead."

The wiry man said, "But I heard on the news "

"Go away," said Pedro Luz, "before I break your fucking legs."

"But I found the mango voles. I want my money."

Pedro Luz stepped out of the office and closed the door. He stood a full foot taller than the man with the grocery bag, and outweighed him by a hundred pounds.

"You don't listen so hot," Pedro Luz said.

The man's face twitched uncontrollably as he tried to open the bag. "Just one look," he said, "please."

Pedro Luz seized the man by the throat and shook him like a doll. The grocery bag fell to the ground and tore open. Pedro Luz was so involved in assaulting the derelict that he didn't notice what came out of the bag: two half-starved, swaybacked ferrets, eyes glazed and bluish, lips flecked with foam. Instantly they settled in chewing on Pedro Luz's right ankle, and did not stop until he tore them off, bare-handed, and threw them with all his might against the nearest wall.

One hour later, the Publicity Department of the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills faxed the following statement to all media, under the caption "Rare Voles Now Believed Dead":


Police authorities reported today that the blue-tongued mango voles stolen this week from the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills are probably dead. According to the Florida Highway Patrol and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the rare mammals believed to be the last of the species were killed while crossing a highway after being abandoned by the robbers who took them.

Francis X. Kingsbury, founder and chairman of the Amazing Kingdom, expressed shock and sorrow at the news. "This is a tragedy for all of us at the park," he said Wednesday. "We had come to love and admire Vance and Violet. They were as much a part of our family as Robbie Raccoon or Petey Possum."

Mr. Kingsbury, who had offered $1 million for the safe return of the missing animals, said he will use part of the money as a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the crime.

A radical outlaw group calling itself the Wildlife Rescue Corps has claimed responsibility for the robbery at the popular amusement resort. Mr. Kingsbury said he was "shocked and dismayed that anyone claiming to support such a cause would commit crimes of violence crimes that ultimately led not only to the animals' deaths, but to the extinction of an entire species."

Charles Chelsea, vice president in charge of public relations, said that the blue-tongued mango voles were provided with the best possible care while in captivity at the Amazing Kingdom. Only last year, the Florida Audubon Society praised the Vole Project as "a shining example of private enterprise using its vast financial resources to save a small but precious resource of nature."

Next week, the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills will present a multi-media retrospective featuring slides and videotapes of the voles during their time at the park. Entitled "Vance and Violet: The Final Days," the presentation will be shown three times daily at the Rare Animal Pavilion.

Tickets will be $4 for adults, $2.75 for children and senior citizens.


In the cafeteria, Charles Chelsea handed Joe Winder the fax and said, "Nice job, big guy."

Winder stopped on the last sentence. "You're charging money? For a goddamn slide show?"

"Joey, we're running a business here. We're not the National Geographic, okay? We're not a charity."

"A rodent slide show." Joe Winder wadded up the press release. "The amazing thing is not that you'd do it, because I think you'd charge tourists twenty bucks to watch the pelicans fuck, if they'd let you. The amazing thing is, people will actually come and pay." He clapped his hands once, loudly. "I love this business, Charlie. Every day I learn something new."

Chelsea tightened his necktie. "Christ, here we go again. I try to pay you a compliment, and you twist it into some sort of cynical...commentary."

"Sorry," said Winder. He could feel his sinuses filling up like a bathtub.

"For your information," said Chelsea, "I got people

calling all the way from Alaska, wanting to buy Vance-and-Violet T-shirts." Chelsea sighed, to show how disappointed he was in Joe Winder's attitude. Then he said, with an edge of reluctance, "You did some nice writing on this piece, Joe. Got us all off the hook."

"Thanks, boss. And you're right it was a piece."

Chelsea sat down, eyeing the fast-food debris on Joe Winder's tray. One of Uncle Ely's Elves, sitting at the other end of the table, belched sonorously. Charles Chelsea pretended not to notice. He said, "Not to brag, Joey, but I think I did a pretty fair job with this ditty myself. Mr. X loved his quotes. He said I made him sound like a real human being."

With the tips of his fingers, Joe Winder began to rub both his temples in a ferocious circular motion.

Chelsea asked, "Now what's the matter?"

"Headache." Winder squinted as tightly as he could, to wring the pain out of his eyeballs. "Listen, I called Dr. Koocher's house. He didn't go home last night. His wife is scared out of her mind."

"Maybe he just got depressed and tied one on. Or maybe he's got a girlfriend."

Joe Winder decided not to tell Chelsea that Koocher had tried to reach him. "His wife's eight months pregnant, Charlie. She says he usually calls about nineteen times an hour, but she hasn't heard a word since yesterday."

"What would you like me to do?"

"Worry like hell," said Winder. He stood up. "Also, I'd like your permission to talk to Pedro Luz. I think he's hiding something."

Charles Chelsea said, "You can't talk to him, Joe. He's in the hospital." He paused wearily and shook his head. "Don't ask."

"Come on, Charlie."

"For rabies shots."

"I should've guessed," Winder said. "My condolences to the dog."

"It wasn't a dog," Chelsea said. "Can't this wait till tomorrow? Pedro's in a lot of pain."

"No," said Joe Winder, "that's perfect."


Pedro Luz had been taken to the closest emergency room, which was Mariners' Hospital down on Plantation Key. The nurse on duty remembered Pedro Luz very well, and directed Joe Winder to a private room on the second floor.

He didn't bother to knock, just eased the door open. The impressive bulk of Pedro Luz was propped up in bed, watching a Spanish-language soap opera on Channel 23. He was sucking on one end of the plastic IV tube, which he had yanked out of his arm.

"That doesn't go in your mouth," Winder told him.

"Yeah, well, I'm thirsty."

"You're bleeding all over the place."

"What do you care?" said Pedro Luz. With a corner of the sheet he swabbed the blood from his arm. "You better get out of here. I mean right now."

Joe Winder pulled a chair close to the bed and sat down. Pedro Luz smelled like a fifty-five-gallon drum of rubbing alcohol. His luxuriant hair stood in oily black spikes, and his massive neck was covered with angry purple acne, a side effect of the fruit-and-steroid body-building diet.

"You like your job?" Winder asked him.

"What do you mean at the Kingdom? Sure, I guess." The security man pulled the covers off his legs, so Joe Winder could see the bandages on his ferret-gnawed ankle. "Except for shit like this," said Pedro Luz. "Otherwise, it's an okay job most of the time."

Winder said, "So you really wouldn't want to get fired."

"The hell are you talking about?"

"For lying. I think you're lying."

"What about?"

Joe Winder said, "Don't play dumb with me." As if the guy had a choice. "Tell me why you sent a man to Koocher's lab yesterday. I know you did, because he called me about it."

Pedro Luz got red in the cheeks. The cords in his neck stood out like a rutting bull's. "I already told you," he said. "I don't have no report on that guy."

"He's missing from the park."

"Then I'll do up a report," Pedro Luz said. He breathed deeply, as if trying to calm himself. "Soon as I get outta here, I'll make a report." He took the IV tube out of his mouth. "This stuff's not so bad," he said thoughtfully. "Tastes like sugar syrup." He replaced the tube between his lips and sucked on it loudly.

Joe Winder said, "You're a moron."

"What did you say?"

"Make that a submoron."

Pedro Luz shrugged. "I'd beat the piss out of you, if I didn't feel so bad. They gave me about a million shots." He leered woozily and opened his gown. "See, they broke two needles on my stomach."

Joe Winder couldn't help but admire Pedro Luz's physique. He could see the bright crimson spots where the hypodermics had bent against the muscle.

"Least I won't get the rabies," said Pedro Luz, drawing merrily on the tube. "You oughta take off, before I start feeling better."

Winder stood up and slid the chair back to its corner. "Last chance, Hercules. Tell me why you sent a man to the lab yesterday."

"Or else what?"

"Or we play "This Is Your Life, Pedro Dipshit." I tell Kingsbury's people all about your sterling employment record with the Miami Police Department. I might even give them a copy of the indictment. A spine-chilling saga, Pedro. Not for the meek and mild."

Pedro Luz removed the tube and wiped his lips on the sleeve of his gown. He looked genuinely puzzled. "But they know," he said. "They know all about it."

"And they hired you anyway?"

"Course," said Pedro Luz. "It was Kingsbury himself. He said every man deserves a second chance."

"I admire that philosophy," Joe Winder said, "most of the time."

"Yeah, well, Mr. X took a personal liking to me. That's why I'm not too worried about all your bullshit."

"Yes," said Joe Winder. "I'm beginning to understand."

"Because you couldn't get me fired no matter what," said Pedro Luz. "And you know what else? Don't never call me a moron again, if you know what's good for you."

"I guess I don't," said Joe Winder. "Obviously."


| NativeTongue | SEVEN