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 shoes?"
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 witticism.
When Ace didn't bother to answer, Tim said, "Exactly."
"You about through with your inspection, Mr. Birdman?" the deliveryman asked.
"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 its belly."
"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 to eat?"
"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 buttons.
"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.
Copyright © 1999 by Deveraux, Inc. Published with the permission of the publisher, Pocket Books
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