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Carrie Lanier pulled off Joe Winder's shoes and said, "You want me to call your girlfriend?"

Winder said no, don't bother. "She'll be home in a couple hours."

"What does she do? What kind of work?"

"She talks dirty," said Joe Winder, "on the phone."

Carrie sat on the edge of the bed. She put a hand on his forehead and felt for fever.

He said, "Thanks for cleaning me up."

"It's all right. You want more ginger ale?"

"No, but there's some Darvocets in the medicine cabinet."

"I think Advils will do just fine."

Winder grunted unhappily. "Look at me. You ever see a face like this on an Advil commercial?"

She brought him one lousy Darvocet and he swallowed it dry. He felt worse than he could remember ever feeling, and it wasn't only the pain. It was anger, too.

"So who beat me up?" he said.

"I don't know," said Carrie Lanier. "I imagine it was somebody from the park. I imagine you stuck your nose where it doesn't belong."

"I didn't," Joe Winder said, "not yet."

He felt her rise from the bed, and soon heard her moving around the apartment. He called her name and she came back to the bedroom, sitting in the same indentation on the mattress.

"I was looking for something to bandage those ribs."

"That's okay," said Winder. "It only hurts when I breathe."

Carrie said, "Maybe I don't need to tell you this, but the Amazing Kingdom is not what it seems. It's not fun and games, there's a ton of money at stake."

"You mean it's a scam?"

"Hey, everything's a scam when you get down to it." Her voice softened. "All I'm saying is, stick to your job. I know it's boring as hell, but stick to it anyway. You shouldn't go poking around."

Joe Winder said, "My poking days are over."

"Then what were you doing out there tonight?"

"Meeting someone at the bridge. What about you?"

"I had a free-lance gig," Carrie said. "A birthday party up in South Miami. Mummy and Daddy wanted Junior to meet Robbie Raccoon in person. What the heck, it was an easy five hundred. And you should've seen the house. Or should I say mansion."

Floating, Joe Winder said: "What do you have to do at these parties?"

"Dance with the kiddies. Waggle my coon tail. Juggle marshmallows, whatever. And pose for pictures, of course. Everybody wants a picture."

She touched his brow again. "You're still hot. Maybe I ought to call your girlfriend at work."

"Don't do that," said Joe Winder, "please." He didn't want Carrie to hook up with Miriam by accident. Miriam and her hot-tub "blow-jobs."

"This is important," he said. "Did you see anyone else on the road out there? Like maybe a circus-type person."

"You're not well," said Carrie Lanier.

"No, I mean it. Big guy with a beard. Flowers on his head." It sounded so ridiculous, maybe he'd hallucinated the whole thing.

"That's not a circus person you're describing. That's Jesus. Or maybe Jerry Garcia."

"Whatever," Joe Winder said. "Did you see anybody on the road? That's all I'm asking."

"Nope," Carrie said. "I really ought to be on my way. What'd you decide about calling the cops?"

"Not a good idea," said Winder. "Especially with Dr. Koocher still missing. Maybe the bad guys'll call back."

"The creeps who did this to you?" Carrie sounded incredulous. "I don't think so, Joe."

She didn't say anything for several moments. Joe Winder tried to read her expression but she had turned away.

"How much does she make, your girlfriend, talking sexy on the phone?"

"Not much. Two hundred a week, sometimes two fifty. They get a bonus for selling videos. And panties, too. Twenty bucks a pair. They buy 'em wholesale from Zayre's."

"Two fifty, that stinks," said Carrie Lanier. "But, hey, I've been there. You do what you have to."

"Nina's got no complaints," said Joe Winder. "She says there's a creative component to every job; the trick is finding it."

Carrie turned around, glowing. "She's absolutely right, your girlfriend is. You know what I did before I got my SAG card? I worked in a cough-drop factory. Wrapping the lozenges in foil, one at a time. The only way I kept from going crazy each cough drop, I'd make a point to wrap it differently from the others. One I'd do in squares, the next I'd do in a triangle, the one after that I'd fold into a rhombus or something. Believe me, it got to be a challenge, especially at thirty lozenges per minute. That was our quota, or else we got docked."

Joe Winder said the first dumb thing that popped into his brain. "I wonder if Nina has a quota."

"She sounds like she's doing just fine," Carrie said. "Listen, Joe, I think you ought to know. There's a rumor going around about the rat doctor. Supposedly they found a note."


"You know what kind of note I mean. The bad kind. Good-bye, cruel world, and all that. Supposedly they found it in his desk at the lab."

Joe Winder said, "What exactly did it say, this supposed note?"

"I don't know all the details." Carrie Lanier stood up to go. "Get some rest. It's just a rumor."

"Give me another pill, and sit down for a second."

"Nope, I can't."

"Get me another goddamn pill!"

"Go to sleep, Joe."

By eight the next morning, a crowd had gathered beneath the Card Sound Bridge to see the dead man hanging from the center span. From a distance it looked like a wax dummy with an elongated neck. Up close it looked much different.

The crowd was made up mostly of tourist families on their way down to the Florida Keys. They parked haphazardly on the shoulder of the road and clambered down to where the police cars and marine patrols were positioned, blue lights flashing in that insistent syncopation of emergency. A few of the tourist husbands took out portable video cameras to record the excitement, but the best vantage was from the decks of the yachts and sleek sailboats that had Cropped anchor in the channel near the bridge. The mast of one of the sloops had snagged on the hanging dead man and torn off his trousers as the vessel had passed through the bridge at dawn. By now everyone had noticed that the corpse wore no underwear.

A man from the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office stood on the jetty and looked up at the dead body swinging in the breeze, forty feet over the water. Standing next to the man from the medical examiner's was FBI Agent Billy Hawkins, who was asking lots of questions that the man from the medical examiner's didn't answer. He was keenly aware that the FBI held absolutely no authority in this matter.

"I was on my way to the park," Agent Hawkins was saying, "and I couldn't help but notice."

With cool politeness, the man from the medical examiner's office said: "Not much we can tell you at the moment. Except he's definitely dead, that much is obvious." The coroner knew that most FBI agents went their whole careers without ever setting eyes on an actual corpse. The way Billy Hawkins was staring, he hadn't seen many.

"The poor bastard has no pants," the agent observed. "What do you make of that?"

"Sunburned testicles is what I make of that. If we don't haul him down soon."

Agent Hawkins nodded seriously. He gave the coroner a card. The feds, they loved to hand out cards.

The man from the medical examiner's played along. "I'll call if anything turns up," he lied. The FBI man said thanks and headed back toward his car; he was easy to track a blocky gray suit moving through a bright sea of Hawaiian prints and Day-Glo surfer shorts. A dog in a flower bed.

The amused coroner soon was joined by an equally amused trooper from the Florida Highway Patrol.

"Nice day for a hangin"," drawled the trooper. His name was Jim Tile. He wore the standard mirrored sunglasses with gold wire frames.

"I don't see a rope," said the coroner, gesturing at the dead man high above them. "What the hell's he hanging with?"

"That would be fishing line," Jim Tile said.

The coroner thought about it for several moments. Then he said, "All right, Jim, what do you think?"

"I think it's a pretty poor excuse for a suicide," said the trooper.

A tanned young man in a crisp blue shirt and a red necktie worked his way out of the crowd. The man walked up to the coroner and somberly extended his right hand. He wore some kind of plastic ID badge clipped to his belt. The coroner knew that the tanned young man wasn't a cop, because his ID badge was in the shape of an animal head, possibly a raccoon or a small bear.

Charles Chelsea gestured toward the dead man without looking. In a voice dripping with disgust, he said, "Can't you guys do something about that?"

"We're working on it," replied the coroner.

"Well, work a little faster."

The man from the medical examiner's looked down at Charles Chelsea's animal-head ID and smiled. "These things can't be hurried," he said.

A jurisdictional dispute had delayed the removal of the offending body for most of the morning. It was a tricky geographic dilemma. The middle of the Card Sound Bridge marked the boundary line between Dade and Monroe counties. The Monroe County medical examiner's man had arrived first on the scene, and decided that the dead man was hanging in Dade County airspace and therefore was not his responsibility. The Dade County medical examiner's man had argued vigorously that the victim had most certainly plummeted from the Monroe County side of the bridge. Besides which the Dade County morgue was already packed to the rafters with homicides, and it wouldn't kill Monroe County to take just one. Neither coroner would budge, so the dead body just hung there for four hours until the Monroe County medical examiner announced that he was needed at a fatal traffic accident in Marathon, and scurried away, leaving his colleague stuck with the corpse and now some whiny pain-in-the-ass PR man.

The coroner said to Charles Chelsea: "We've got to get some pictures. Take some measurements. Preserve the scene, just in case."

"In case of what? The poor jerk killed himself." Chelsea sounded annoyed. Preserving the scene was the opposite of what he wanted.

Trooper Jim Tile removed his sunglasses and folded them into a breast pocket. "I guess I can go home. Now that we got an expert on the case."

Charles Chelsea started to rebuke this impertinent flatfoot, but changed his mind when he took a good look. The trooper was very tall and very muscular and very black, all of which made Chelsea edgy. He sensed that Jim Tile was not the sort to be impressed by titles, but nonetheless he introduced himself as a vice president at the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills.

"How nifty," said the trooper.

"Yes, it is," Chelsea said pleasantly. Then, lowering his voice: "But, to be frank, we could do without this kind of spectacle." His golden chin pointed up at the hapless corpse. Then he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the chattering throng of onlookers.

"All these people," Chelsea said urgently, "were on their way to our theme park."

"How do you know?" asked Jim Tile.

"Look around here where else would they be going? What else is there to see?"

"In other words, you would like us to remove the deceased as quickly as possible."

"Yes, exactly," said Charles Chelsea.

"Because it's competition."

The publicity man's eyes narrowed. Frostily he said, "That's not at all what I meant." Giving up on the black policeman, he appealed to the coroner's sense of propriety: "All the young children hanging around they shouldn't be witness to something like this. Vacations are for fun and fantasy, not for looking at dead bodies."

Jim Tile said, "They seem to be enjoying it."

"We didn't ask for an audience," the coroner added. He was accustomed to gawkers in Miami. Shopping malls were the worst; drug dealers were always leaving murdered rivals in the trunks of luxury automobiles at shopping malls. The crowds were unbelievable, pushing and shoving, everybody wanting a peek at the stiff.

The coroner told Charles Chelsea: "This always happens. It's just a sick fact of human nature."

"Well, can't you hurry up and get him it down? The longer it stays up there, the more people will stop." Chelsea paused to survey the size of the crowd. "This is horrible," he said, "right in the middle of Summerfest. It's giving all these folks the wrong idea."

Jim Tile couldn't wait to hear more. "The wrong idea about what?"

"About Florida," said Charles Chelsea. The indignation in his tone was authentic. "This is not the image we're trying to promote. Surely you can understand."

Grimly he turned and disappeared into the gallery of onlookers.

The coroner once again fixed his attention on what was hanging from the Card Sound Bridge. He asked Jim Tile, "So what do you think about getting him down from there?"

"Easy," said the trooper. "I'll go up and cut the line."

"You really think that's safe?"

Jim Tile looked at him curiously.

"With all these people milling around," said the coroner. "What if he hits somebody? Look at all these damn boats." He frowned and shook his head. "I think we've got a serious liability risk here. Somebody could be injured or killed."

"By a falling corpse," said Jim Tile thoughtfully.

"You betcha. Look at all these damn tourists."

Jim Tile took out a bullhorn and ordered the boats to weigh anchor. He also instructed the bystanders to get off the jetty under threat of arrest. Then he went to the top of the bridge and quickly found what he was looking for: a nest of heavy monofilament fishing line tangled around the base of a concrete column. One end of the monofilament was attached to the type of flat plastic spool used by Cuban handline fishermen. The other end of the line led over the side of the bridge, and was attached to the dead man's neck.

The trooper got a 35-millimeter camera out of the patrol car and took pictures of the column and the knot. Then he got down on his belly and extended his head over the side of the bridge and snapped several aerial-type photographs of the hanging corpse.

After Jim Tile put the camera away, he waved twice at the coroner, still standing on the rocks below. Then, when the coroner gave the signal, the trooper unfolded his pocketknife and cut through the monofilament fishing line.

He heard the crowd go ooooohhhh before he heard the splash. A marine patrol boat idled up to the dead man and fished him out of the water with a short-handled gaff.

They were loading the body into the van when the coroner told his theory to Jim Tile. "I don't think it's a suicide," he said.

"What, somebody was using him for bait?"

"No, this is what I think happened," said the coroner, demonstrating with his arms. "You know how these Cuban guys twirl the fishlines over their heads real fast to make a long cast? It looks to me like he messed up and wrapped the damn thing tight around his neck, like a bolo. That's what I think." He picked up a clipboard and began to write. "What was the color of his eyes? Brown, I think."

"I didn't look," said Jim Tile. He wasn't crazy about dead bodies.

The man from the medical examiner's reached into the van and tugged at the woolen blanket, revealing the dead man's features.

"I was right," said the coroner, scribbling again. "Brown they are."

Jim Tile stared at the rictus face and said, "Damn, I know that guy." He wasn't a fisherman.

"A name would be nice," the coroner said. "He lost his wallet when he lost his pants."

Angel, the trooper said. Angel Gaviria. "Don't ask me how to spell it."

"Where do you know him from?"

"He used to be a cop." Jim Tile yanked the blanket up to cover the dead man's face. "Before he got convicted."

"Convicted of what?"

"Everything short of first-degree murder."

"Jesus Christ. And here he is, out of the slammer already."

"Yeah," said Jim Tile. "Modeling neckwear."

Bud Schwartz had been a two-bit burglar since he was seventeen years old. He was neither proud of it nor ashamed. It was what he did, period. It suited his talents. Whenever his mother gave him a hard time about getting an honest job, Bud Schwartz reminded her that he was the only one of her three children who was not in psychoanalysis. His sister was a lawyer and his brother was a stockbroker, and both of them were miserably fucked up. Bud Schwartz was a crook, sure, but at least he was at peace with himself.

He considered himself a competent burglar who was swift, thorough and usually cautious. The times he'd been caught five in all these were flukes. A Rottweiler that wasn't in the yard the night before. A nosy neighbor, watering her begonias at three in the goddamn morning. A getaway car with bad plugs. That sort of thing. Occupational hazards, in Bud Schwartz's opinion plain old lousy luck.

Normally he was a conservative guy who played the odds and didn't like unnecessary risks. Why he ever accepted the rat-napping job from Molly McNamara, he couldn't figure. Broad daylight, thousands of people, the middle of a fucking theme park. Jesus! Maybe he did it just to break the monotony. Or maybe because ten grand was ten grand.

Definitely a score. In his entire professional burgling career, Bud Schwartz had never stolen anything worth ten thousand dollars. The one time he'd pinched a Rolex Oyster, it turned out to be fake. Another time he got three diamond rings from a hotel room on Key Biscayne a big-time movie actress, too and the fence informed him it was all zircon. Fucking paste. Or so said the fence.

Who could blame him for saying yes to Molly McNamara, or at least checking it out? So when he gets out of jail, he rounds up Danny Pogue Danny, who's really nothing but a pair of hands; somebody you drag along to help carry the shit to the car. But reliable, as far as that goes. Not really smart enough to pull anything.

So together they meet the old lady once, twice. Get directions, instructions. Go over the whole damn thing until they're bored to tears, except for the part about what to do with the voles. Bud Schwartz had assumed the whole point was to free the damn things, the way Molly talked. "Liberate" was the word she'd used. Of course, if he'd known then what he knew now, he wouldn't have chucked that one little rat into the red convertible. If he'd known there were only two of the damn things left on the whole entire planet, he wouldn't ever have let Danny take a throw at the Winnebago.

Now the voles were gone, and Bud Schwartz and Danny Pogue were nursing their respective gunshot wounds in the old lady's apartment.

Watching a slide show about endangered species.

"This formidable fellow," Molly McNamara was saying, "is the North American crocodile."

Danny Pogue said, "Looks like a gator."

"No, it's a different animal entirely," said Molly. "There's only a few dozen left in the wild."

"So what?" said Danny Pogue. "You got tons of gators. So many they went and opened a hunting season. I can't see getting' all worked up about crocodiles dyin" off, not when they got a season on gators. It don't make sense."

Molly said, "You're missing the point."

"He can't help it," said Bud Schwartz. "Just go on to the next slide."

Molly clicked the remote. "This is the Schaus' swallowtail butterfly."

"Now that's pretty," said Danny Pogue. "I can see wanting to save somethin" like that. Isn't that a pretty butterfly, Bud?"

"Beautiful," said Bud Schwartz. "Really gorgeous. Next?"

Molly asked why he was in such a hurry.

"No reason," he replied.

Danny Pogue snickered. "Maybe 'cause there's a movie he wants to see on cable."

"Really?" Molly said. "Bud, you should've told me. We can always continue the orientation tomorrow."

"That's okay," Bud Schwartz said. "Go on with the program."

"Amazon Cheerleaders," said Danny Pogue. "We seen the ending the other night."

Molly said, "I don't believe I've heard of that one."

"Get on with the slides," said Bud Schwartz gloomily. Of all the partners he'd ever had, Danny Pogue was turning out to be the dumbest by a mile.

A picture of something called a Key Largo wood rat appeared on the slide screen, and Danny exclaimed: "Hey, it looks just like one a them voles!"

"Not really," said Molly McNamara patiently. "This hardy little fellow is one of five endangered species native to the North Key Largo habitat." She went on to explain the uniqueness of the island hardwood hammocks, brackish lakes and acres of precious mangroves. And, only a few miles offshore, the only living coral reef in North America. "Truly a tropical paradise," said Molly McNamara, "which is why it's worth fighting for."

As she clicked through the rest of the slides, Bud Schwartz was thinking: How hard would it be to overpower the old bat and escape? Two grown men with six functional limbs, come on. Just grab the frigging purse, take the gun what could she do?

The trouble was, Bud Schwartz wasn't fond of guns. He didn't mind stealing them, but he'd never pointed one at anybody, never fired one, even at a tin can. Getting shot by Molly McNamara had only reinforced his view that guns were a tool for the deranged. He knew the law, and the law smiled on harmless unarmed house burglars. A burglar with a gun wasn't a burglar anymore, he was a robber. Not only did robbers get harder time, but the accommodations were markedly inferior. Bud Schwartz had never been up to Raiford but he had a feeling he wouldn't like it. He also had a hunch that if push came to shove, Danny Pogue would roll over like a big dumb puppy. Do whatever the cops wanted, including testify.

Bud Schwartz decided he needed more time to think.

A new slide came up on the screen and he told Molly McNamara to wait a second. "Is that an endangered species, too?" he asked.

"Unfortunately not," Molly said. That's Francis X. Kingsbury, the man who's destroying the island."

Danny Pogue lifted his chin out of his hands and said, "Yeah? How?"

"Mr. Kingsbury is the founder and chief executive officer of the Amazing Kingdom of Thrills the so-called amusement park you boys raided the other day. It's a tourist trap, plain and simple. It brings traffic, garbage, litter, air pollution, effluent Kingsbury cares nothing about preserving the habitat. He's a developer."

The word came out as an epithet.

Bud Schwartz studied the jowly middle-aged face on the screen. Kingsbury was smiling, and you could tell it was killing him. His nose was so large that it seemed three-dimensional, a huge mottled tuber of some kind, looming out of the wall.

"Public enemy number one," said Molly. She glared at the picture on the screen. "Yes, indeed. The park is only a smokescreen. We've got reason to believe that Mr. Kingsbury holds the majority interest in a new golfing resort called Falcon Trace, which abuts the Amazing Kingdom. We have reason to believe that Kingsbury's intention is to eventually bulldoze every square inch of ocean waterfront. You know what that means?"

Danny Pogue pursed his lips. Bud Schwartz said nothing; he was trying to guess where the old coot was heading with this.

Molly said, "It means no more crocodiles, no more wood rats, no more swallowtail butterflies."

"No more butterflies?" Danny Pogue looked at her with genuine alarm. "What kinda bastard would do something like that?"

"This kind," said Molly, aiming a stern papery finger at the screen.

"But we can stop him, right?" Bud Schwartz was smiling.

"You can help, yes."

"How?" Danny Pogue demanded. "What do we do?"

Molly said, "I need to know the full extent of Mr. Kingsbury's financial involvement you see, there are legal avenues we could pursue, if only we knew." She flicked off the slide projector and turned on a pair of brass table lamps. "Unfortunately," she said, "Mr. Kingsbury is a very secretive man. Every document we've gotten, we've had to sue for. He is extremely wealthy and hires only the finest attorneys."

From his expression it was clear that Danny Pogue was struggling to keep up. "Go on," he said.

Bud Schwartz inhaled audibly, a reverse sigh. "Danny, we're burglars, remember? What do burglars do?"

Danny Pogue glanced at Molly McNamara, who said, "Your partner's got the right idea."

"Wait a second," said Danny Pogue. "More voles?"

"Jesus Christ, no," Bud Schwartz said. "No more voles."

By now he was planning ahead again, feeling better about his prospects. He was wondering about Francis X. Kingsbury's money, and thinking what a shame that a bunch of greedy lawyers should get so much of it, all for themselves.

EIGHT | NativeTongue | c