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Authors: Carl Hiaasen

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Sick Puppy

BOOK: Sick Puppy
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~  
FOR FENIA,
  ~

H MONAΔIKH MOU AΓAΠH

 

   

   

 

This is a work of fiction. All names and characters are either invented or used fictitiously. To the best of the author’s knowledge, there is no such licensed product as a Double-Jointed Vampire Barbie, nor is there a cinematic portrayal thereof.

 

However, while most events described in this book are imaginary, the dining habits of the common bovine dung beetle are authentically represented.

1

On the morning of April 24, an hour past dawn, a man named Palmer Stoat shot a rare African black rhinoceros. He fired from a distance of thirteen yards and used a Winchester .458, which knocked him flat on his back. The rhinoceros wheeled, as if to charge, before snorting twice and sagging to its knees. Its head came to rest under a spread of palmettos.

Palmer Stoat instructed his guide, a former feed salesman named Durgess, to unpack the camera.

“Let’s first make sure she’s dead,” Durgess said.

“Are you kidding? You see that shot?”

Durgess took the Winchester from his client. He approached the lifeless mass and poked it in the rump with the rifle barrel.

Stoat grinned as he dusted off his mail-order khakis. “Hey, Bungalow Bill, look what I killed!”

While Durgess assembled the video equipment, Stoat inspected his newest trophy, which had cost him thirty thousand dollars, not including ammo and gratuities. When he moved the palmetto fronds away from the rhino’s face, he noticed something wrong.

“You ready?” Durgess was wiping down the lens of the video camera.

“Hey, look here.” Stoat pointed accusingly.

“I’m lookin’. ”

“Care to explain?”

“Explain what? That’s a horn,” said Durgess.

Stoat gave a yank. It broke off in his hands.

Durgess said, “Now see what you done.”

“It’s fake, Jethro.” Angrily Stoat thrust the molded plastic cone at Durgess.

“The other one’s real,” Durgess said defensively.

“The other one’s a nub!”

“Look, it wasn’t my idea.”

“You glued a phony horn on my thirty-thousand-dollar rhinoceros. Is that about right?”

Nervously Durgess cracked his knuckles.

“What’d you guys do with the real one?” Stoat demanded.

“Sold it. We cut it off and sold it.”

“Perfect.”

“They’s worth a fortune in Asia. Supposably some kinda magic dick medicine. They say it gives you a boner lasts two days.” Durgess shrugged skeptically. “Anyhow, it’s serious bucks, Mr. Stoat. That’s the program for all our rhinos. Some Chinaman over Panama City buys up the horns.”

“You bastards are gypping me.”

“Nossir. A jenna-wine African rhinoceros is what the catalog says, and that’s what you got.”

For a closer look, Stoat knelt in the scrub. The rhino’s cranial horn had been taken off cleanly with a saw, leaving an oval abrasion. There the plastic replacement had been attached with white gummy industrial adhesive. A foot or so up the snout was the animal’s secondary horn, the caudal, real enough but unimpressive; squat and wart-like in profile.

“The whole idea,” Stoat said irritably to Durgess, “was a head mount for my den.”

“And that’s a helluva head, Mr. Stoat, you gotta admit.”

“Except for one tiny detail.”

Stoat tossed the fake horn at Durgess. Durgess let it drop to the ground, now sodden with rhino fluids. He said, “I got a taxidermy man does fiberglass on the side, he’ll fix you up a new one. Nobody’ll know the difference, sir. It’ll look just like the real deal.”

“Fiberglass.”

“Yessir,” Durgess said.

“Hello, why not chrome—ever thought of that? Rip the hood ornament off a Cadillac or maybe a 450-SL. Glue it to the tip of that sucker’s nose.”

Durgess gave Stoat a sullen look. Stoat took the Winchester from the guide and slung it over his shoulder. “Anything else I should know about this animal?”

“Nossir.” There was no point telling Stoat that his trophy rhinoceros also had suffered from cataracts on both eyes, which accounted for its lack of alarm at the approach of heavily armed humans. In addition, the animal had spent its entire life as tame as a hamster, the featured attraction of an Arizona roadside zoo.

Stoat said, “Put the camera away. I don’t want anybody to see the damn thing like this. You’ll get with that fiberglass man right away?”

“First thing tomorrow,” Durgess promised.

Palmer Stoat was feeling better. He rubbed a hand across the rhino’s bristly plated hide and said, “What a magnificent creature.”

Durgess thought: If only I had ten bucks for every time I’ve heard that line.

Stoat produced two thick cigars and offered one to his faithful guide. “Cohibas,” Stoat said, “the genuine article.” Theatrically he fired up.

Durgess declined. He grimaced at the acrid comingling of fumes, stogie and rhino piss.

Stoat said, “Tell me something, little bwana.”

Oh blow me, Durgess almost said.

“How old you figure this animal to be?”

“I ain’t too sure.”

Stoat said, “She looks to be in her prime.”

“Yeah, she does,” said Durgess, thinking: Blind, tame, fat and half-senile—a regular killing machine, all right.

Palmer Stoat continued to admire the carcass, as he felt this was expected of a triumphant hunter. In truth, it was himself he was admiring, as both he and Durgess knew. Stoat patted the flank of the carcass and said to his guide: “Come on, man. I’ll buy you a beer.”

“Sounds good.” Durgess took a portable two-way radio from a pocket of his safari jacket. “First lemme call Asa to bring the flatbed.”

 

Palmer Stoat had more than enough money to go to Africa, but he didn’t have the time. That’s why he did his big-game hunting at local safari ranches, some legal and some not. This one, located near Ocala, Florida, was called the Wilderness Veldt Plantation. Officially it was a “private game preserve”; unofficially it was a place where rich people went to shoot exotic wild animals. Palmer Stoat had been there twice before, once for a water buffalo and once for a lion. From Fort Lauderdale it wasn’t a bad drive, a shade over four hours. The hunts were staged early in the morning, so usually he was home in time for dinner.

As soon as he made the interstate, Stoat got on the phone. He had three cellular lines to his Range Rover, as his professional services were in high demand.

He called Desie and told her about the kill. “It was classic,” he said, smacking on the cigar.

“How so?” his wife asked.

“Just being out there in the bush. The sunrise. The mist. The twigs crackling under your boots. I wish you’d come along sometime.”

“What did she do?” his wife asked. “When you blasted her, I mean.”

“Well—”

“Did she charge?”

“No, Des. Everything was over in a second. It was a clean shot.”

Desirata was Palmer Stoat’s third wife. She was thirty-two years old, an avid tennis player and an occasional liberal. Stoat’s buddies once called her a bunny hugger because she wasn’t a fan of blood sports. It all depends on whose blood you’re talking about, Stoat had said with a taut laugh.

“I suppose you took video,” Desie said to her husband. “Your first endangered species and all.”

“As a matter of fact, no. No video.”

“Oh, Dick’s office called.”

Stoat rolled down the window and flicked the ash off his Cuban. “When?”

“Four times,” Desie said. “Starting at seven-thirty.”

“Next time let the machine pick up.”

“I was awake anyway.”

Stoat said, “Who in Dick’s office?”

“Some woman.”

That really narrows it down, Stoat thought. Dick Artemus was the governor of Florida, and he liked to hire women.

Desie said, “Should I make dinner?”

“No, let’s you and I go out. To celebrate, OK?”

“Great. I’ll wear something dead.”

“You’re a riot, Alice.”

Palmer Stoat phoned Tallahassee and left a message on the voice mail of Lisa June Peterson, an aide to the governor. Many of Dick Artemus’s staff members went by three names, a vestige of their college sorority days at FSU. So far, none of them had consented to have sex with Palmer Stoat, but it was still early in the new administration. Eventually they would come to see how clever, powerful and charismatic Stoat was; one of the two or three top lobbyists in the state. Only in politics would a job like that get you laid; no normal women were impressed by what Stoat did for a living, or even much interested in it.

In Wildwood he got on the turnpike and soon afterward stopped at the Okahumpka Service Plaza for a late lunch: Three hamburgers all the way, two bags of french fries and a jumbo vanilla shake. He drove one-handed, stuffing his cheeks. The digital Motorola started ringing, and Stoat checked the caller ID. Hastily he touched the
OFF
button. The man on the other end was a Miami commissioner, and Stoat had a firm rule against speaking directly with Miami commissioners—those who weren’t already under indictment were under investigation, and all telephone lines into City Hall had long ago been tapped. The last thing Palmer Stoat needed was another trip to the grand jury. Who had time for such nonsense?

Somewhere north of Yeehaw Junction, a dirty black pickup truck appeared in the Rover’s rear window. The truck came up fast and then settled in, three car lengths behind Stoat’s bumper. Stoat was gnawing on fries and gabbing on the phone, so he didn’t pay serious attention until an hour or so later, when he noticed the truck was still behind him. Weird, he thought. Southbound traffic was light—why didn’t the idiot pass? Stoat punched the Rover up past ninety, but the truck stayed close. Gradually Stoat eased off the accelerator until he coasted down to forty-five; the black pickup remained right there, three lengths behind, as if connected by a tow bar.

Like most affluent white people who owned sport-utility vehicles, Palmer Stoat lived in constant fear of a carjacking. He had been led to understand that luxury 4x4s were the chariots of choice for ruthless black and Latin drug gangs; in such circles a Range Rover was said to be more desirable than a Ferrari. Glare on the truck’s windshield made it impossible for Stoat to ascertain the ethnicity of the tailgater, but why take a chance? Stoat groped in the console for the Glock semiautomatic that he’d been given as a Christmas gift by the president of the state Police Benevolent Association. Stoat placed the pistol on his lap. Ahead loomed a slow-moving Airstream travel trailer, as wide as a Mississippi barge and just about as nimble. Stoat accelerated around it and cut back sharply, putting the camper rig between him and the pickup truck. He decided to get off the turnpike at the next exit, to see what the tailgater would do.

The Airstream followed Stoat off the ramp; then came the dirty black pickup. Stoat stiffened at the wheel. The clerk at the tollbooth glanced at the gun between his legs but made no mention of it.

“I’m being followed,” Stoat informed her.

“That’ll be eight dollars and seventy cents,” said the clerk.

“Call the Highway Patrol.”

“Yessir. Eight-seventy, please.”

“Didn’t you hear me?” Stoat asked. He handed the clerk a fifty-dollar bill.

“Have you got something a little smaller?”

“Yeah. Your brain stem,” Stoat said. “Now, keep the change and call the goddamn Highway Patrol. There’s some lunatic tailgater following me.”

The clerk ignored the insult and looked toward the vehicles stacking up behind the Range Rover.

In a low voice, Stoat said: “It’s the black pickup truck behind the travel trailer.”

“What pickup truck?” asked the clerk.

Palmer Stoat placed the Glock on the dashboard and stepped out of the Rover so he could peek around the Airstream. The next car in line was a station wagon with a square-dance pennant attached to the antenna. The tailgater was gone. “Sonofabitch,” Stoat muttered.

The driver of the camper honked. So did another motorist, farther down the line. Stoat got back in the Range Rover. The tollbooth clerk handed him change for the fifty. Dryly she said, “You still want me to call the Highway Patrol?”

“No, thanks.”

“How about the CIA?”

Stoat smirked. The little smart-ass didn’t know who she was dealing with. “Congratulations, young lady,” he told her. “You’re about to enter the cold cruel world of the unemployed.” Tomorrow he would speak to a man in Tallahassee, and it would be done.

Palmer Stoat found an Exxon station, gassed up, took a leak and then headed back toward the turnpike. All the way to Lauderdale he kept checking his rearview—it was mind-boggling how many people owned black pickups. Had the whole damn world gone redneck? Stoat’s nerves were whacked by the time he got home.

 

They had brought their idea for Shearwater Island to Governor Dick Artemus in glitzy bits and pieces, and he’d liked what he’d heard so far.

A planned seaside community. Beach and boardwalks between the condominium towers. Public parks, kayak tours and a nature trail. Two championship golf courses. A clay pigeon shooting range. A yacht harbor, airstrip and heliport.

But Dick Artemus could not locate Shearwater Island on the wall map of Florida in his office.

That’s because it’s not called Shearwater Island yet, explained Lisa June Peterson. It’s called Toad Island, and it’s right there on the Gulf, near the mouth of the Suwannee.

“Have I been there before?” Dick Artemus asked.

“Probably not.”

“What does ‘Shearwater’ mean?”

“It’s the name of a bird,” Lisa June Peterson said.

“Do they live on the island?” asked the governor. “Is that going to be a problem?”

Lisa June Peterson, having already researched the question, reported that shearwaters were migratory seabirds that preferred the Atlantic coastline.

“But there are other kinds of birds on the island,” she added.

“Like what?” Dick Artemus frowned. “Eagles? Don’t tell me there’s goddamn bald eagles on this island, because that means we got a federal scenario.”

“They’re doing the survey this week.”

“Who!”

“A biological survey. Clapley’s people,” Lisa June Peterson said. Robert Clapley was the developer who wanted to rename Toad Island and subdivide it. He had contributed most generously to Dick Artemus’s gubernatorial campaign.

“There’s no votes in bulldozing eagle nests,” the governor remarked gravely. “Can we all agree on that?”

“Mr. Clapley is taking every reasonable precaution.”

“So what else, Lisa? In fifty words or less.” Dick Artemus was famous for his insectine attention span.

His assistant said: “The transportation budget includes funding for a new bridge from the mainland. It passed the Senate, but now Willie Vasquez-Washington is being a prick.”

BOOK: Sick Puppy
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