"I refuse to accept it in that condition," Ace said,
glaring at the man who was holding out a clipboard and
expecting him to sign the acceptance papers.
"Look, mister, I'm just the deliveryman, and nobody said
anything about busted crates. So just sign it so I can get
out of here."
Ace kept his hands at his side. "Maybe you can't read, but
I can," he said. "The fine print on that contract says
that once I accept shipment, it's my responsibility. That
means that if it's broken, then it's my problem. But if I
find out that it's broken before I sign, then it's your
problem. Got it?"
For a moment the man stood there opening and closing his
mouth. "Do you know what's in that thing?"
"I most certainly do, since I'm the one who ordered it.
And paid for it, I might add."
The man still didn't seem to understand. "So let's get it
out of here so we can -- "
"No," Ace said. "We open it here and now."
At that the man looked about him pointedly, as though Ace
didn't understand exactly where they were. They were in
the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale airport.
Right now there were only a few porters removing unclaimed
bags from the carousels, but any minute the escalator to
the left might start delivering a plane full of
people. "You want me to uncrate the thing here? Now?" the
man said quietly.
"Now," Ace said firmly. "You put it in my truck, it's
mine, so I have to pay for it if it's damaged, and I paid
too much for it to -- "
"Yeah, yeah," the man said, bored, then turned to a skinny
kid standing next to Ace. The kid was wearing the same
gray uniform that the guy giving the orders was
wearing. "He always like that?"
"Naw, sometimes he's a real pain in the neck."
"I hope you're gettin' paid well."
"Actually..." he began, but a bark from Ace stopped him.
"Tim! You want to get away from that end of the crate? I
don't want one of my guys touching it until I see that
With his back to Ace, the deliveryman grimaced. He was
tired and hungry, and worse, he was alone. He'd have to
uncrate the damned thing by himself all because of a
little dent in one corner. Using a crowbar, he pried up
one side of the fifteen-foot-long crate, and there, lying
in a bed of Styrofoam pellets was the remote control. With
a wicked little smile that he made sure no one saw, he
pocketed the control, then kept on uncrating. When he got
to the other end, Ace was bent over the opposite end,
peering inside, a frown of concentration on his face.
"Psst," the deliveryman said to the kid in the uniform.
The label on his pocket said, Tim, Kendrick Park. "Tim,"
the deliveryman said, then handed him the remote control.
"Is that what -- "
"Quiet," the man ordered. "Don't let him see it."
"Yeah, sure," Tim said, his eyes wide, looking like a kid
with the world's biggest Nintendo game in his hands.
"Just don't push the buttons," the deliveryman
said, "because the thing will start moving and it'll scare
"Yeah?" Tim said, somehow managing to open his eyes even
wider. But Tim could no more resist the temptation than
Adam could. The minute the crate was opened enough to see
inside the near end, Tim pushed the buttons -- then was
extremely satisfied when a woman behind him gave a yelp of
"It's all right," Ace said to the crowd as he looked at
the first of what was probably a planeload of travelers
arriving in the baggage claim. "It's not real. It's just a
fiberglass alligator sent here from California, and we're
checking it for damages."
At his words the fear left their faces, but they showed no
signs of moving closer to the baggage carousel. What some
of them had just seen was what looked to be the enormous
head of an alligator lift out of a wooden crate and snap
its jaws at the man who was fearlessly putting his hands
into the long box.
When no one so much as moved even an inch in the direction
of the luggage, Ace shook his head in exasperation, then
turned and snatched the remote from Tim. "Would you help
rather than hinder?"
"Sorry, boss," Tim said, but he didn't look sorry. "I
couldn't resist it. That thing sure does look real."
"That's why it cost me every penny I had," Ace
muttered. "Now get on that end and check its tail. See if
there's so much as a scratch."
Now that Ace and Tim had taken over, the deliveryman was
leaning against the back wall and using a pocket knife to
trim his nails. "So how come you don't have a real
alligator?" he asked. "You runnin' out of real ones down
here?" He laughed at his own joke. "Too many handbags and
Ace had to nearly push a woman aside as she leaned so far
over to see inside the crate that she was in the
way. "Kendrick Park is a bird sanctuary," he said, as if
that explained everything.
When the man looked puzzled, Tim said quietly, "He doesn't
like to put things in cages, but alligators draw crowds."
The man pondered that for a minute. "I see. So you thought
that if you get a fake alligator you'll get tourists, but
ol' Ivan here won't cry crocodile tears
of loneliness. Right?" He was grinning at his little
When Ace didn't bother to answer, Tim said, "Exactly."
"You about through with your inspection, Mr. Birdman?" the
"The damage on the crate is on the bottom. To do a proper
inspection, we're going to have to take it out and look at
"Just what my wife says to me every night," the man said
under his breath to Tim, who turned red and choked on his
laughter. At the moment his boss didn't look as though he
was in the mood for jokes.
"Okay, Tim, get the tail. Careful. I don't want it hurt.
Okay," Ace said a moment later as he looked at the huge
alligator replica stretched out full length on the
floor. "It looks undamaged."
"So you want to sign this now, so I can go get something
"All right," Ace said, stretching out his hand; then he
took a deep breath before he signed the paper saying the
terrifically expensive replica was now his responsibility.
For a moment he glanced up at the plane passengers that
were now surrounding them. They were silent, tired after
their flight from New York, or maybe they were just awed
at seeing what they had hoped to see on their trip to
Florida. Whatever, they were just standing there watching
this free show while suitcases went unnoticed, round and
round on the carousel.
"Okay, so let's get him back in his box," Ace said. "Tim,
you get the tail, and I'll get the head."
For a moment, Ace hesitated as he tried to figure out how
best to get a grip on the beast. In the next second he
inserted his hand, then his arm up to his armpit down the
alligator's mouth. When a collective "Ooooh" went up from
the watching crowd, he smiled. This was going to work, he
thought. Over on the other side of the state, Disney was
making a fortune with his fake animals, while farms here
in Fort Lauderdale were barely able to feed their 450-
pound 'gators. And getting ma, pa, and the kids to want to
go see a flock of flamingos was a losing proposition --
and he had the empty bank account to prove it.
As Ace and Tim were putting the giant fiberglass alligator
back into the box, neither of them saw the inquisitive
toddler slip between the suitcases and pick up the remote
control that Ace had carefully set on top of his toolbox.
The little boy, at eighteen months, just loved to push
"Bloody hell," Fiona muttered as she disembarked the
plane. She'd had a couple of hangovers in her life, mostly
while in college, but nothing like this. Not only did her
head hurt, but she could feel even the tiny bones in her
ankles. She'd fallen asleep on the plane, and the
attendant had had to wake her, which made her the last one
off the plane.
Dragging her backpack on over her shoulder sent more pain
through her. She and the rest of The Five, as they'd
dubbed themselves as kids, had stayed out until two a.m.,
laughing riotously over everything in their lives, but
most especially over Fiona's having to go on a fishing
"You?" Jean had said. "I can't imagine you more than two
miles from a manicurist." Jean was a sculptor and her
hands always looked scraped and worn. But all four of the
women knew that Jean didn't need to do anything to make a
living; she had a trust fund.
As Fiona walked into the airport, the bright light coming
through the huge windows made her hide her eyes while she
fumbled in her bag for the sunglasses she'd bought at
LaGuardia Airport. In New York they'd seemed so dark she
could hardly see through them. But now the glare made them
seem like clear glass.
The airport seemed empty as she trudged ahead, her aching
head filled with nothing but bad thoughts. How was she
going to survive the next three days? Would this man
require her to clean fish?
When she stepped onto the escalator leading down to the
baggage carousels, the movement almost made her retch.
Quickly, she fumbled in her bag for a tissue, then held it
to her mouth. Why was she here and what did this man Roy
Hudson want with her? And why Florida? And if Florida, why
not some nice clean, private beach? Why was he insisting
on going into the swamps or whatever to look for --
Because Fiona had a tissue to her mouth and her eyes
closed, she had descended the escalator without seeing the
silent, watching crowd at the bottom. But when she stepped
off, she nearly fell on top of a man with a paunch and not
"Pardon me," she said in a voice as husky as her brain was
The man looked up at her and his face softened. "Any
time," he said, then stepped aside so she could see what
they were all watching.
Later, Fiona said that she didn't think, she just moved.
What she saw -- her eyes blinking behind the dark glasses,
her mind full of swamps and alligators and the treachery
of the state of Florida -- was a man with his arm being
eaten off by an enormous alligator. As the alligator
started to thrash its tail, then move its head from side
to side, the man shouted something incomprehensible as he
tried to free himself from the attacking reptile.
In school Fiona had been the girl with the fastest
reaction time in any game, whether it was soccer or pickup
sticks, and now she lost no time. Next to her was a woman
with an airport luggage cart, and on top of it was a pink
bowling ball bag with the name Dixie embroidered on it.
Without a thought, Fiona picked up the bag and threw it
with all her might at the midsection of the alligator.
She wasn't prepared for what happened next. The alligator
exploded! It didn't open its mouth and release its victim.
Instead, there was a terrific noise, then the whole nasty
green thing seemed to fly into thousands of pieces that
went flying around the airport.
While Fiona stood there in stunned silence, the rest of
the people in the airport seemed to go crazy. Instantly
there was screaming and shouts of, "Bomb, bomb!"; then
sirens went off and people started running.
Unmoving, still not understanding what had happened, Fiona
removed her sunglasses and looked at what she thought had
been an alligator. A man came toward her and there seemed
to be a double row of teeth attached to his upper arm. Her
eyes were on the oddity of the teeth, but when she looked
up at the man to ask why he was wearing teeth, she saw
that he was furious and he was coming after her.
Instinctively, Fiona took a step backward, whereupon she
tripped over the luggage cart of the woman who had had the
bowling ball bag. But now the woman was gone, probably to
join all the many people who were screaming and running
frantically for the exits.
"Lady, I'm going to kill you," the man said as his hands
made for Fiona's neck.
But the alligator teeth, and what looked to be a detached
eyeball, slipped down his hands so that both teeth and
murderous hands were coming for her throat. Fiona opened
her mouth to scream, but no sound came out.
But then, just before the man reached her, two security
guards and a boy with red hair grabbed the man, teeth and
all, and pulled him away.
"Thank you so much," Fiona said when a third and fourth
security guard helped her to stand up. "That man should be
locked away. He's a danger to society, and if you don't --
Wait a minute! What do you think you're doing?"
The guard was pulling Fiona's hands behind her back and
snapping handcuffs on her wrists. "We're holding you for
the police, that's what. The man says you're the one that
threw the bomb." She could hardly hear him over the
cacophony of the people in the airport, running every
which way, screaming names of people they couldn't find.
"Bomb?" she shouted. "I threw a bowling ball bag at an
alligator that was eating a man's arm."
"Yeah, right," one of the guards said. "We got alligators
crawling all over the airports here in Fort Lauderdale. It
entertains the tourists to no end."
"But you can ask -- "
"Save it for the police," the second guard said as the two
of them pulled her toward the exit door.
"What about my luggage? You have to call my boss in New
York. He can -- "
"Ah. New York," the first guard said as though that
Before Fiona could say another word, she was pulled along
by the men and led to a car marked Airport Security. Just
like on TV, the man shielded her head from getting banged
on the top of the doorframe as he forcibly helped her
inside the car.
Shaking with fatigue, Fiona sat down on the dirty
bedspread and looked at the telephone on the cheap,
battered bedside cabinet. The beautiful hotel where she
was supposed to stay had canceled her reservation when she
didn't show up before six. At first she'd politely tried
to explain that she'd been in jail for the last six hours,
but when she saw the young female clerk back away as
though Fiona were a criminal, she tried threatening. This
got her nowhere fast, and the manager soon came out and
asked her to leave.
So now she was in what had to be the sleaziest motel in
all of Florida. It was four a.m. and she had to meet Roy
Hudson in two hours.
With her hands protected with a tissue (because who knew
what type of person had used this phone last?), she
punched the buttons to call Jeremy.
When his sleepy voice answered, Fiona burst into tears.
"Who is this? Is this a prank call? You'd better speak
up!" Jeremy loudly demanded while Fiona tried to get
"It's me," she managed to whisper. "Oh, Jeremy, I've just
had -- "
"Fiona, do you know what time it is? I have to get up and
go to work in three hours."
"I haven't been to bed at all. Oh, Jeremy, I've been in
That got his attention, and she could imagine his sitting
up and reaching for a cigarette. She waited a moment until
she heard his lighter click, then heard him inhale.
"All right, I'm listening," he said in his lawyer voice.
Maybe he didn't like a girlfriend calling him before dawn,
but a client in trouble was a whole other matter. After
about ten minutes of listening to Fiona's semihysterical
telling of her outrageous story, Jeremy interrupted.
"They let you go? No charges?"
"What could they charge me with?" Fiona's voice was
rising. "I thought I was saving the man's life. Not that
it was worth much. Did I tell you that the ungrateful jerk
tried to murder me? I ought to sue him."
"Ah. There's the word. Is he planning to sue you? What
about the people at the airport? Did anyone have any
accidents during the panic you caused? Heart attacks? Were
any ambulances called?"
"Jeremy! Whose side are you on?"
"Yours of course," he said in a tone of dismissal, "but
money is money. Did the man say he was going to sue you
for destroying his alligator?"
"I don't know. I don't remember. They kept us separated
after we got to the police station. Oh, Jeremy, it was so
horrible, and I wish you were here to hold me. That man --
He cut her off. "Did anyone else mention a lawsuit? What
about the airport personnel? You caused mass hysteria, so
I doubt if they'll take that lightly."
Fiona ran her hand over her face. There was no longer any
hope that she still wore makeup. "Jeremy, I called you as
my friend, not as a lawyer."
"Maybe you'll need both, so would you please answer my
Part of her wanted to be babied, hugged and cuddled as
best he could over the telephone, but another part of her
was sane and sensible. She took a deep breath. "The woman
whose bowling ball bag I used came to the police station
and said I had to buy her a new bag. And her ball was
Jeremy let out smoke so fast he nearly choked. "You dented
her bowling ball?"
"Don't start on me," Fiona snapped. "I've heard it all
from those horrible policemen. I guess I must have put a
lot of my anger into that throw because I hit
that...that...thing pretty hard."
"Enough to dent a bowling ball," Jeremy said in
wonder. "Remind me never to make you angry at me. So, what
did you do about the woman's bag and ball? And, by the
way, why didn't you call me from the station?"
"Because they said I wasn't under arrest, that I was
their 'guest' until this thing was cleared up, therefore I
didn't need any fancy-smancy New York lawyer."
"You need to document this. You might have a case for a
lawsuit against them."
"I never want to see them again. I gave the woman a check
for three hundred dollars and -- "
"Paid for the ball I dented," Fiona half shouted into the
phone. "Isn't that what you just asked me?"
Jeremy didn't speak for a moment. "You want to calm down?"
"How can I calm down? I didn't want to leave Kimberly in
the first place; Garrett made me go. Now, there's someone
I'd like to sue. He threatened me that if I didn't go on
this trip he'd separate me from Kimberly forever. Can he
"He's your boss," Jeremy said, stubbing out his cigarette.
Privately, he thought that it would be a great relief if
Fiona were separated from Kimberly. "Look, Fee, honey, I
need to get some more sleep. It doesn't sound as though
you're in serious trouble, but I'll call a friend of mine
down there in the morning and have him call you. I'll have
him make sure that nothing bad is going to happen to you."
His voice softened. "Now I want you to take a long, hot
bath, then get into bed and dream about me."
Finally, Fiona smiled. It seemed that she hadn't smiled in
days, maybe even in years. "I'd like that," she said
softly, leaning back against the headboard. But the creaky
thing almost came off its cheap frame, so she had to sit
up quickly to keep from falling, and the movement broke
"I can't," she said in a little-girl whine. "I have to
meet this old man, this Roy Hudson, in just over an hour."
"Can't you call and delay the meeting?"
"It's for" -- she swallowed -- "fishing. You have to go
out in the boat very early for fishing. Maybe the slimy
little things take afternoon naps; I don't know. But I
have to be there very soon."
"All right, calm down. This man Hudson is rich, so I'm
sure he'll have a boat with a crew. A yacht probably.
Think you could handle a yacht? Have yourself a few
drinks? Lie in the sun?"
"Drinking is what got me in this mess in the first place,
and sun is not going to touch my skin and make me look
sixty at forty, and -- "
"Okay, have it your way. Be miserable if you want to. Just
tell me where you'll be, so my friend can reach you."
"I'll be at Kendrick Park until we get on the boat. I
think it's a bird sanctuary, and get this, as if I didn't
have enough problems, one of the men on the boat is named
When Jeremy was silent, Fiona spoke again. "You don't
think that's funny?"
"Not particularly. What's wrong with that name?"
She thought about telling him of what she and The Five had
come up with about the man, but Jeremy liked The Five as
much as he liked Kimberly. "I think it might be a woman
"I'm sure it is. Look, honey..."
"Yes, I know, you need your beauty sleep. Did I tell you
that when I didn't claim my suitcase, they put it into an
incinerator? After all, they'd already had one bomb scare
that day, so they didn't need another one. I am here with
the clothes on my back and what's in my pack."
Jeremy yawned. "If I know women, that thing is full of
everything you need for a week on a deserted island."
Tightening her lips, Fiona glared at the phone. His
chauvinistic comment was one of dismissal, and all his
care and concern had been about legal matters. He hadn't
offered her a word of sympathy for all that she'd been
through. So much for a shoulder to cry on! "At least your
photo was in the bag that got burned up," she said, then
hung up. But the gesture didn't make her feel any better.
She had an hour and a half to get ready to meet Roy