Dancing with Lightning: Chapter 22

Dancing with Lightning: Chapter 22

Synopsis

After a lifetime of transience with his now estranged migrant worker parents, Dave Copersmith wants nothing more in his adult independence than to settle down with a permanent job, home, and his own family in Denver. But owing to the severe handicap of a childhood brush with lightning that has scrambled his nerves, severed his ability to dream, and initiated a dangerous habit of sleepwalking, his ambitions remain elusive. Waking up in Mexico City from his longest sleepwalk ever, stealing dance lessons with a telescope, and pretending experience with diapers don’t help his cause. When the final indignity of losing his apartment to the new landlord’s aged mother threatens, he promptly infiltrates her senior living center with an alias and an unformed agenda to keep her at bay. His thoroughly improvised campaign forces him to waltz in cheap furniture TV commercials, engage in a protracted battle of wits with a crafty real estate agent, sing disguised in a talent show for the elderly, chase 80-year-old lovers joyriding a motor home all the way to Seattle while keeping a beautiful but nosy single mother off his lengthening trail of deceptions, and smuggle an exotic animal for safekeeping into the Denver Zoo with a band of bohemian actors. With a subconscious boost from movies as dream substitutes, the combined impact of these spirited misadventures forces him to accept the relationships he’s worked hardest to avoid and possibly provides the keys to realizing his long-tendered desires.

After Dave had ghosted Big Al’s throughout the five-day Seattle trip, Tino’s heavily garnished cover story of food poisoning from a frisée and radish salad with hazelnut dressing at his grandmother’s funeral was ignored, and he was promptly fired Monday morning.

It was Ron Condon’s job as his direct supervisor to deliver the news, but the pirate emeritus handed off the assignment to an incensed Kim Sheridan, who was only too happy to do the honors. With Dave’s dismissal and the simultaneous disappearance of Roger, both indispensable to the new hit commercials, Kim’s role as Allison’s in-store double had been kiboshed, considerably reducing her office profile. The carefully tended plans for becoming her idol’s future manager-in-chief that had red Jetta and Cherry Creek townhome written all over them now appeared in dangerous disarray.

“The bird gone’s just got you written all over it, Copersmith,” Kim shouted into his answering machine. “What a coincidence. I am not falling for the feathers piled up like a big fake clue next to the hole in the back wall. And neither will the police. I can’t wait to visit you in jail.” Then came the plastic bang of the receiver missing the disconnect buttons in the cradle and the manic shuffle to slide it into place.

Being falsely accused of Roger’s mysterious exit was insulting, but Dave was practiced at being fired and relieved to be hanging up his dancing shoes. He knew he could still make rice and beans at the Mayan, and minimum wage labor could be had within days till something better presented itself.

Most importantly, once they’d retraced their interstate miles back to Denver, he and Josie had become practically inseparable. They saw each other every day that week, and Dave had become a fixture at the Corrales dinner table. His fears and petty loathings of the Josie he thought he’d known for the past three months seemed like somebody else’s bad dream to him now.

The rent was another matter. It was always the biggest elephant in the checkbook, and Dave wasn’t sure how long he’d even have a roof to pay for. Pablo had returned the keys to the motor home in a cigar box filled with Cy’s shredded checks and an invitation to return to the poker games.

That might have been the end of it if Doug Bjorndal hadn’t figured out that he and his mother’s mutual acquaintances, Dave and Stevan, who each coincidentally drove a green pickup truck, looked exactly like the dancing fool in the latest Big Al’s commercial.

Genevieve was more amused than irritated by the ambitious ruse that revolved around her, but Doug wasn’t having any. “He was clearly at the Glen Ayr to keep you there or something, Mom. It’s just creepy. Who knows what else might’ve happened?”

“Don’t be melodramatic, Doug. So what if he wanted to keep me happy here? I am. I can’t help but see him on my side in this.”

“Oh, Mom. First of all, we think you’d be really comfortable next to us, but the idea of him following you around.... The assumed name, the disguise at the talent show. It’s all so...sordid.”

“How so?”

“Doesn’t it seem borderline criminal to you? At least we need to notify the Glen Ayr about him.”

“Absolutely not, Douglas. Everybody around here loves the kid. First of all, when he stepped in for Cy and then brought all his friends along, they helped make the talent show a huge hit. Then he chased Pablo all the way to Seattle to retrieve the motor home. Pretty responsible, I’d say.”

“What about taking Brian out in the street naked?”

“According to your neighborhood gossip.”

“I believe her, Mom.”

“Well, he is a baby, after all. They’re naked all the time.”

“Still.”

“Well, I wish you’d just forgive him. And I’m not moving in...now. I love you kids and Brian, sweetheart, but Cy and I enjoy our independence, and we’re going to keep it that way as long as we can. You’ll just have to get used to it.”

“Okay, okay. I got it, Mom. But Gail’s set on getting somebody else in there like a college girl or something.”

“Good luck, honey. Just tell her I think she’s wrong about that.”

Doug finished his end of the conversation with the long, pained sigh of negotiator-as-hostage.

The first Saturday morning following the week back from Seattle, Dave got up from bed and started across the living room to grab some orange juice for himself and Josie. When he saw the noon sun pouring in through all three wide-open front windows, he hustled his bare butt the last few steps to the kitchen.

“Hey, cabana boy,” Josie called out from the bedroom. “I’m thirsty, and I need some more lotion on my back.”

“Coming, Miss.” Dave poured two glasses and started back when who should be passing by at that moment as slowly as possible but good old Charlotte Seton with her grandchild in a stroller. She was pausing every ten feet and pretending to fuss with the baby while she had a good look in her neighbors’ picture windows.

Dave got almost to the hallway on his knees and elbows without spilling any juice when the phone started ringing. On the fourth ring, Josie bounded out of the bedroom wearing the sheet like a winter prom dress and grabbed the receiver. “David Copersmith’s Juice Bar. What can we get for you today?” She reached down and took one of the glasses from Dave’s hand while he finished scooting into the cover of the hallway.

“Must be my lucky day” Tino answered. “I hadn’t realized how thirsty I was till just this moment. Could I get a Piña Colada Frappé with coriander and a shot of Drambuie, please? And don’t forget the sprig of mint.”

“Coming right up,” Josie answered. “Another customer,” she said to Dave, handing him the phone.

“Juice?” Tino asked. “Do you know what time it is, Dog Boy?”

“What?” Dave asked with an air of pronounced evasion.

“Don’t ‘what’ me, junior. This is your maestro talking. Did you make that tart some breakfast yet, or are you guys just getting up?”

“Ohhh,” Dave said, stalling for an answer, “we, uh....”

“Never mind. We can talk about the smutty details later. Can you two make yourselves presentable in the next 60 minutes? I need to talk some business to both of you.”

“I guess. What’s goin’ on?”

“Check. See ya,” Tino said, disconnecting.

An hour later, Tino showed up at the front door wearing a medium-weight jacket he’d borrowed from Dave four months earlier, zipped up despite the heat. He walked in grinning hard at both of them.

“Hey, Tino,” Dave said. “Nice jacket.”

“Mr. Marino,” said Josie.

“Hey hey, everybody.” He paused. “Aaannd?” he said, his voice rising with expectation. He looked back and forth between them. “You knowww, if you just confess your sins to me, you won’t have to go to church tomorrow. I was practically an altar boy once.”

“You want something to drink?” Dave asked. “Why don’t you take your...my coat off.”

“Did you make my piña colada?”

“That’s a definite no.”

“What kind of a juice bar is this?” Tino asked, his free hand adding incomprehensible punctuation as he slowly unzipped the jacket. “Forget it. Look who misses his old dancing partner,” he said, opening the lapel of the jacket to reveal Roger blinking and suddenly trying to get a grip on his new surroundings with repeated head bobs.

Dave had had his suspicions. “Oh my god. That’s what I thought,” he said, shaking his head. “What the hell?”

“He escaped. Didn’t you hear? He’s a fugitive. Hell, for all they know, he’s livin’ it up in Mexico, or a cat got him already.” He stopped and chucked the bird under his lower beak. “Just a little jailbreak humor, bud. Don’t worry. Look how happy he is, you guys. Have you ever seen such a smile?” Tino made kissing sounds at him before ducking into the kitchen. He came back with a cereal bowl full of water, installing it and bird on the coffee table. “All right. Truth. Can you see what’s happening to his neck feathers?”

“Is he losing them?” Josie guessed. “That doesn’t look so good. What’s wrong with the poor guy?”

“Dehydration. Et cetera,” Tino answered. “This little brother’s in the wrong climate. His people are from the Amazon. He needs his humidity. Not to mention a better diet.”

“Come on, there must be lots of people with parrots in Colorado.”

“Yeah, really,” Dave put in. “What does everybody else with parrots do?”

Tino shook his head. “They could at least get a humidifier. Some people pony up for lotions and a little swimming pool. Actually keep it clean. Can you see Big Al or Her Royal Mattress giving this poor kid the spa treatment?”

“How long has he been out?” Josie asked.

“Almost a week. Why? Does he look like he needs a shave? Life on the run’s a bitch, but he’s done his homework. First of all, he’s changing his name to João, after one of his favorite Brazilian musicians. And we’re practicing our Portuguese. Check this out. Oi, bella. Tudo bom?” he said to the bird.

Oi bella,” Roger/João repeated.

“How do you know Portuguese?” Dave asked.

“Are you kidding? I saw Bye Bye Brazil twice and Gabriela, like, four times.”

“He’s pretty good, Tino” Josie said. “Is he going for the plastic surgery?”

“That’s one o’ the maybes, and I like the way you think. But for now,” he said, raising his index finger like a flag, “there is a plan.”

“You know Kim’s already blaming this on me, Tino,” Dave said.

“Aaah, there’s no proof, right? Since you didn’t even do anything.”

“No, but it looks like that’s about to change.”

“Man, I’ll say. You’re not as dumb as you look, that’s for sure.”

“So what’s the big plan, Tino?” Josie asked.

“Glad you asked, because there really isn’t much time for rehearsals. Performance is Wednesday morning sharp.”

Dave looked from João to Josie and back at Tino. “Keep talkin’.”

“Look, I can’t keep him at my house forever, and I’d say he’s a little hot for you to take in. But listen, none of this matters. You remember the lady who loaned the doves to the magic act in the Glen Ayr talent show? Catherine Hurlbutt?” Dave didn’t register recognition. “The Bird Lady. She’s famous.”

“I know who she is,” Josie offered.

“Well, while you were hammin’ it up on stage, Mr. Stevan Penny, she told me she’d seen our little guy in your commercial. And she was pretty sure he was way short on humidity and a proper diet. Well, that’s when I decided to take action. I mentioned it to Henry, and he...uh...went kinda ballistic.”

“Like?” Dave asked.

“Our very good friend Mr. Jameson has crafted a beautiful little one act that puts João back in an environment where he belongs. It’s a one-off performance called João Returns to the Jungle,” he said with a quick bow. “The jungle’s actually the Tropical Rain Forest room at the Denver Zoo.”

“You’re sneaking him into the zoo?” Josie exclaimed.

Dave couldn’t contain himself. “And calling it a play?”

“That about sums it. Can’t fool you two for very long. Listen, I’m just the casting agent here. You’ve already got the parts of the couple with child who actually places our little man back in the jungle.”

“I...don’t think so,” Dave said dismissively.

“But Henry wrote the part just for you. We’re kinda short on couples with kids.”

“Yeah, and I...don’t....”

“Look, you’re the closest thing to the real thing that we have.” Tino threw a quick glance at Josie to clarify things. “And I didn’t want to have to do this, but considering I’m still bringing it for your show.” Dave looked confused. “The Mayan kids’ feast for the Glen Ayr’s big night? You owe me, bra’.” Dave groaned. “You know,” Tino said, looking over Josie and Dave again, “Henry was right. The two of you with the little girl are gonna look like a commercial for lemonade. Zero criminal intent.”

Josie started laughing. “Sounds just crazy enough to be a lotta fun, Dave,” she said, pinching his ear. “I did a little theater in high school. This could be a real kick, don’cha think? It’s not like you don’t have massive chops already.”

Dave closed his eyes and shook his head.

Tino smirked at Josie. “Hesitation is 90% of consent. I think we got ourselves a show, kids.”

Henry and Marcy spent two full days casing the zoo while Henry scripted the play. Posing alternately as journalists and curious dingbats, they expeditiously learned the feeding times, the shift changes, and maintenance schedules. Gathering a crew was easier than anybody anticipated. Once word spread about Henry’s most madcap, guerilla theater adventure yet, every one of the available Mayans who’d participated in the Glen Ayr show became involved, plus those who’d felt left out of the splashy frolic. It was practically a company picnic.

With a small boost from Gina’s city-wide wardrobe network, Dave, Josie, and Paloma did indeed show up looking like a photogenic little household in a commercial. At 9:30 a.m., right on cue, the sham parents came through the north gates of the Denver Zoo wheeling Paloma in her stroller, all three having donned extra dark sunglasses in spite of the moderate cloud cover. Dave sported a brand new mustache still smelling like the bag it came out of, a white tennis bucket hat, red polo shirt, and black shorts. Josie was wearing an extra wide-brim straw hat and yellow sundress. The unbriefed littlest actress was all dolled up in a pink, terry cloth romper and matching jelly sandals. She jabbered busily to her stuffed animal raccoon about all the other animals they could expect to see, with no intimation whatever of her faux family’s hidden cargo and theatrical caper.

Dave’s reluctance had finally worn off, and he was smiling comfortably as he opened up the zoo map. Their memorized script of stage directions told them when and where they were expected to bump into the other Mayans in disguise who’d confirm whether the shanghai crew was on time and if their path was clear.

Paloma started squirming in the stroller, and the parrot squawked. Josie shot Dave a worried glance.

“It’s cool,” Dave assured her. “We got this.” He reached into the bottom compartment and opened the bag of cashews for João. Though he might not have admitted it, his road history was kicking in. The impulse to innovate was automatic. He held out the map to share a look. “Okay, so we’re just going to the west side here where Bird World is. Sheep Mountain at 9:45.”

Josie bent over to dab more sunscreen on Paloma’s nose. “Who’s first on our agenda?”

“I think it’s Marcy, but...they’ll approach us.”

“Mommy, I wanna go see the tigers,” Paloma pleaded.

“Ehh, they’re east of here,” Dave said. “Wrong direction.”

“We’ll go see the tigers a little later, sweetie,” Josie said. “Look. See the lions over there?”

“Tigers, Mommy. I wanna see Tigger.”

“Shhhh,” Josie said, glancing nervously around them.

“Tigers, Mommy. Tigers, tigers.”

“I think we should take a quick detour, Dave. She’s drawing a lot of attention to us right now.”

“Yeah. Vámonos.” He started pushing the stroller eastward. “We’ll figure it out. We’re just shootin’ for the ‘all clear’ at 10:05 outside the rhino corral.”

“Let’s do it.”

Paloma got her tiger fix right away, since the big Siberians were sunning in their outdoor habitat, but when Tino spied Dave and Josie hotfooting it past the shaggy Bactrian camels at the wrong end of their schedule, he left his post behind the giraffe house and almost tripped over a male peacock waddling west and fanning his plumage for a sleek female.

Before they had a chance to recognize him in his plainclothes disguise of T-shirt jeans, Denver Zephyrs baseball hat, and black Ray-Bans, he spoke to them out of the side of his mouth while pretending to look at his copy of the zoo map. “Follow me, and I’ll start a conversation.”

Tino leaned on the pole fence staring at his map before looking over at them when they strolled up beside him, forcing a wide stage smile. “What the hell are you guys doing over here? You’re supposed to come this direction on your way out, not in.”

“Hiii,” Paloma called out cheerfully.

“Nnh. Hey, everybody. How’s my boy?”

Dave cleared his throat. “In the compartment under the stroller.” Pointing deceptively toward the okapis tonguing the bottom leaves of their trees, he tried to finish calming Tino’s fears. “He’s got a week’s supply of sunflower seeds and cashews, so I think he’s doin’ okay.”

“Sorry, Tino,” Josie apologized. “We just had a little situation. Noisy tiger lover.” She nodded toward Paloma.

Dave pointed his camera at the okapis. “Had to improvise.”

“Save the improv for the Bird House, dude. You guys need to get back on track so our people don’t freak out. This way.”

They strode west after him at a fair clip, Tino occasionally gesticulating at his map and then in other directions as if he were their zoo-wise good luck charm. They passed Lee leaning into a bench, absorbed in a paperback book. He was wearing a snappy straw fedora, and had let a short beard come on during the preceding week.

Tino and his errant smugglers continued past the antenna-horned oryxes and waterbucks on the other side of the path. “We just passed Lee at the refreshment stand,” he said.

Dave looked skeptical. “Are you sure? I didn’t see him.”

“That’s a good thing. He’ll be here for backup on your way out.” Tino looked at Dave, at Josie, then Dave again. “Okay, one more time. You guys understand that you’re to come out this way, right? As soon as you drop off our Brazilian bundle, you come through here, like 10:15 at the latest, yeah?”

“Yes, yes, we’ve got it,” Dave said, chafing. “Don’t worry. Paloma just wanted to see—”

“Fine, but no more ad libbing. If you have any complications during the exit, or if it looks like you’re being followed, Lee’ll be here to run interference.”

“Wow,” Josie said, making a show of covering Paloma’s ears with her hands. “That’s a little too exciting.”

“Look, nothin’s gonna happen,” Tino assured them, “but he’s reliable muscle, so if anything does go down, just act natural and keep walkin’. You guys are the least suspicious people in this whole place.” He glanced up and down the path. “Sooo, I’m just gonna fade back here in a sec’, and when I do, you guys jam down to the hippos and get back on schedule.”

“Is the clock really that critical?” Josie asked. “I mean, don’t we just have to be at the bird house on time?”

“If it’s in the script, it’s there for a reason. Henry isn’t just an actor and playwright, you know. I think he did some time in reform school, so he’s experienced.”

“Oh, that’s a comfort,” Dave said. “So he learned all his moves from a bunch of amateurs who got caught.”

“I don’t know. He coulda just made that up. But he’s still the director, so let’s keep a move-on, here—.” Tino stopped walking. They were passing the babirusa pen when he caught sight of one of the Indonesian wild boars. The animal’s four distinctive fighting tusks jutted skyward, ready to butt and slice at the same time. The chef and the fierce swine eyed each other. Tino couldn’t help thinking of the Cuban boar recipe for which he’d had to substitute domestic pork several months before. “So, there we are, my terrifying main course.” He turned sideways and drew an imaginary bowstring back to loose an arrow. “Ffft. Okay, I feel better now. You guys go ahead. Marcy’s at Sheep Mountain.”

“Check,” Dave said, looking at his map. “Then monkeys and elephants at 9:55.”

Paloma bounced her legs. “Mommy, I wanna see Ellie elephant.”

“Okay, honey. Here we go.”

Marcy wordlessly allowed them to pass the doddering 70-year-old granny she’d become in her smoke-colored wig, rumpled stockings, and azure matinee dress. She let them strain to find her for another minute before she held out her instamatic camera to Dave. “Would you mind taking my picture in front of this exhibit, young man?” she asked, her character’s modified inflection aquiver. Kitty’s makeup job left Dave clueless. “It’s me, goofball,” Marcy said in her normal voice.

“Oh. Got it. Wow. I’d be delighted to take your picture, ma’am.”

“That’s better. I look great, don’t I. Okay, just take the picture of me and the bighorns, and then you guys can diddle around here for another five minutes if you want. I just got the word from Kitty that everything’s still fine at the bird house. But get over to the monkeys by—”

“I know, 9:55.”

“Good job. You guys are doing great.” Marcy backed up and smiled graciously for the picture. “Thank you, young man,” she warbled after Dave snapped her. “Such a cute daughter.” Marcy wrinkled her nose and cheeks appreciatively and gave a little finger wave to Paloma.

“Thank you,” Josie and Dave said together.

Marveling at the giant cottonwoods in Monkey Island that were 20 years taller since his last visit, Dave temporarily forgot that he was the lead actor in a crazy play about a parrot going “home.” He was floating the memory of the last trip here with his real family when a familiar voice brought him back to the present.

A woman in white capris and a low-cut, embroidered Indian blouse in a pale cyan turned toward him and took off her sunglasses. She was wearing a gray-streaked black wig, slightly tousled, and her face was done up with extra heavy foundation, thick eyeliner, rouge, and age lines, but it was definitely Sandy Gardenia. Dave gulped. “Sandy? What’re you doing here? I thought.... Where’s—”

“Mitchell?” she asked with a sultry breathiness. “He pulled his first temporary assistant manager shift this morning.” She unfolded her zoo map and pretended to have a hard time with directions by looking in two directions and then shrugging her shoulders. “How do you like the wig and makeup? I’m doing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf next month with the Welcome Delirium Company. Isn’t it so Liz Taylor?” she asked, tilting her head back.

“Yeah.”

“Enough with the flattery.” Eyes suddenly wide, she looked her old frightening, managerial self. “I can’t believe you guys gave that pipsqueak a role and didn’t even ask me.”

“Hey, I’m not in charge of this thing.”

“Well, I’d be surprised if Mitchell’s played anything past a carrot since third grade, so I pulled rank.” She paused to look around herself. “Okay, get going. You’re on time, but we don’t want to look like friendly spies who just happened to bump into each other. I’ve already got my hands full with horny zookeepers checking out my Liz look,” she said, palming the back of her wig. “Hey, Josie.”

“Hi, San—. Uh, great outfit.”

“Thanks. These pants I just borrowed from my anorexic roommate keep hiking up my butt.” She grabbed the leg seams and pulled down, wriggling. “Love your hat,” she said, leaning over the stroller. “Hi, pretty girl. Who’s that?” She pointed at Paloma’s stuffed animal.

Paloma held up her raccoon. “Apples. Her name’s Apples.”

“Hi, Apples. Okay, team,” she said to Dave and Josie, “that’ll do for now.” She held out her map for another false reading and pointed south toward the carousel. “Listen, you’re a tad ahead of schedule, so pop around the corner and see some bears for about five minutes. Then you can meander back to Kitty at the hippo sculpture.” She turned and winked at Paloma. “Here comes Baloo, sweetheart.”

“Yay. Baloo.”

When Dave’s wristwatch cued their appointment at the bronze sculpture of mother and baby hippo, they lifted Paloma out of the stroller and onto the high back of the mother statue.

Puffy kernels of old popcorn skittered in front of Dave’s feet ahead of a broom. “Oh, excuse me, sir,” said a voice that sounded like someone he knew affecting a Southern drawl.

The woman in olivine shorts and ball cap with the tan polo shirt stood up and revealed herself. She wore a laminated fake zoo ID with the name Vantine Jefferson but a color photo of her real self. It was Kitty.

“May I help you?” she offered.

“Uh, yes. You’re clearly a person who works here,” he said, practicing a Boston accent for the hell of it. “I was just wondering if you could tell me what time the African Penguin feeding happens.”

“I can, in fact. It’s at 10:15,” she said, faking a look at her watch. “Good job so far, cowboy.”

“Cool outfit.”

“Totally, huh. It’s counterfeit volunteer crew. How could I resist? My departure muumuu’s inside the ladies’ there tucked above some ceiling tiles.”

“How’dja get that ID?”

“Henry has a way with these things.”

“I shoulda known. But what if a real employee wants a little chat?”

“Are you joking? I’m dying for that moment. Henry would only trust a pro for this role. You know that.”

“I know that.”

Kitty bent down and scooped the popcorn into a dustpan. “So...Henry and Gina just went in a few minutes ago to keep tabs on personnel and schedules, like feeding.”

“And no surprise visits from maintenance or anything.”

“You got it, Dave. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess you’d had your little hands dirty in the acting game before. Naughty puppy.” She dumped a scoop of popcorn into a trash bin. “Listen, when Henry comes out, you guys have a whole minute to go in. There’s a timed diversion coming right after that in the southwest corner, since you guys are going east. If you miss his exit, I’ll do a Carol Burnett,” she said, tugging on her left earlobe “so you know he’s already out.”

  “Got it.” Dave turned to Josie and delivered his only scripted line. “The penguin feeding’s at 10:15, honey.”

“Great, sweetheart. Hey, could you take over here for a minute? You know how scared of the big raptors she is,” nodding at Paloma. “I’m just gonna run around back for a quick peek before we go inside.”

While Dave occupied his make-believe daughter with the brass hippos as giant slides, Josie pushed the stroller to the back side of the building. There she busied herself transforming the giant straw hat into an oversized beach tote with black ribbon handles for her shoulder. She slipped João into it with some dried banana chips and a thin silk scarf for cover and was about to finish her circle around the Bird House when Henry barreled past her going the other direction as fast as he could walk without jogging. He was wearing a shiny, black straw trilby on his head with the brim up all around. Beneath that and the mischievous grin he tossed Josie on his way by, he wore a pleated yellow guayabera shirt, caramel chinos, and a long, tan rain jacket.

Back in front, Josie spied Kitty walking away but looking in her direction and giving the ear tug signal. They parked the stroller outside as required by the Welcome to Bird World sign and ducked into the first room.

Dave and Josie ambled between each glassed habitat, letting Paloma finally have free rein to shout about every new discovery in the kaleidoscopic array of tiny tropical birds. When they stepped into the expansive Rain Forest Room with its glass domed roof and lushly appointed equatorial environment maintained at a steady 78 degrees and 60% humidity, it was clear to Dave that their stowaway parrot’s lonely warehouse prison years would soon be a distant memory. From the artificial rock cliffs to the waterfall, stream-fed pond, and thick tropical vegetation, the place was a small bird paradise.

The con artists’ composure was short-lived when the more extroverted residents, iridescent green-naped pheasant pigeons, came bobbing across Paloma’s path, setting off her squeal alarm and giving them both a start. Nearby, a middle-aged man appeared to be too absorbed by the helmeted curassow to notice, yet looked to Dave just nondescript enough to qualify as potential undercover security. Shooting for his own relaxed innocence, Dave insisted on taking a picture of his girls on the bridge.

He got a shot off as the suspicious stranger departed, but a family of five immediately exploded in from the anteroom. The cackling blond, pig-tailed twins and their springy little towheaded brother dispersed in all directions. The parents gave up herding after two minutes and collapsed onto the bench, directly facing a perfect spot for Josie to finish releasing João.

Dave and Josie eyed each other. The plan had been to release the parrot within a four-minute maximum and then finish the route of their inverted heist with a clean exit eastward, since the diversion for their exit had been timed with their entry. The dillydallying pentourage seemed in no hurry to move along, and the Brazilian package remained undelivered. “Follow my lead,” Dave whispered in Josie’s ear before approaching the beleaguered parents. “Hey, would you like me to take a picture of all of you together?”

“Oh, sure, thanks” the mother answered. “That would be really nice of you.”

“See that bird at the waterfall?” Dave asked. A wildly opalescent green bird was hunkered directly under the cascade, his back turned into a cape of shiny water beads. “I could get him into a shot with all of you and the waterfall, too.” The father of the three hyperactive tykes instantly handed Dave his camera and began wrangling the brood.

Then, because they hadn’t seen the need to work out a code word for João’s actual landing, Dave just glanced at the hat under her arm and silently mouthed, “Now.” Next, he guided his subjects in front of the falls next to the exit and placed himself at an angle that left Josie beyond their peripherals. The whole posing family grinned broadly for the photograph, completely unaware of the real show going on at the other end of the jungle.

Josie knelt at the entrance, where a mock stonewall blocked views of her from the remaining directions. She lowered the hat to the ground and tossed a couple banana chips a few feet farther for João, who promptly trotted after them under cover of giant dieffenbachia leaves, a free bird at last. Josie stood up and tucked the hat-purse under her shoulder again.

Watching the retired actor take his place among the other humidified birds, Dave put an arm around Josie’s shoulder. “Check that out. Doesn’t he look like he belongs here already?”

“He does,” Josie said. “He looks like he’s home.”

On the other side of the building, Gina was simultaneously working her magic with the house personnel. She rapped on the thick glass of the Bird Kitchen several times to get the attention of someone mixing the bird goulash of mealworms, fruit, nuts, and vegetables. At last a smiling blonde wearing vinyl gloves popped out. “Hi,” she said, “are you here to see the kitchen? The school group just left, so we still have a lot of stuff out that you could look at.”

“Oh, no thanks,” Gina answered. The question scooted her off script for a half beat before she delivered her only prescribed lines. “A man just exposed himself to me. It was so dreadful. You’ve got to stop him before....” She pretended to steady herself with a hand against the wall, tilting her head and rolling her heavily smudged eyes upward. “Think of the children.”

The Bird World chef blanched at the shocking revelation. “Ohh,” she said, her eyes communicating much more.

“Do you need a description?” Gina asked, all business. Then she knitted her brows together and wrung her hands as if Cecil B. DeMille were watching.

“I guess so.” The cook looked genuinely alarmed. “Wait. Uhm, let me get Security. There’s someone nearby.” She ducked back into the kitchen and returned a moment later with an officer wearing standard issue olive slacks and a beige safari shirt. Name-tagged Samantha, she eyed Gina with trained scrutiny as the actress used a zoo map to fan her face and take deep breaths.

Samantha extracted a tiny spiral notebook from her shirt pocket. “Can you give us a description and when exactly this happened?”

“Yes, of course. Just let me catch my breath.” Gina loosed a high-pitched moan. “Can I sit down somewhere?”

“Certainly,” the cook assured her. “Come inside.” She directed Gina to a stool and sat beside her. “Oh, are you going to be okay?” she asked, taking one of Gina’s hands in hers.

“I think so. But it was so terrible, so disgusting. He had a black hat on and a tan jacket, I think.”

Samantha tilted her head as if pricking up her ears, though her brunette bangs held steady. When was this?”

“Just a minute ago.”

“Approximate age and ethnicity?”

“I’d say he was about 24. Caucasian.”

“Height? Weight?” Samantha prodded.

“Oh, I’m sorry, but I just turned away.” Gina hung her head and covered her eyes with her free hand.

“Which way did he go? Did you see that?”

Gina looked up. Each minor ruse would ensure Henry had plenty of time to make it all the way to his destination and that Dave and Josie could scoot away from the drop. “Do you have some tissue?” she requested. The cook quickly retrieved two for her. Gina dabbed at her eyes before blowing her nose. “Well, I was right beside the door when it happened. I was looking at the tawny frogmouth, so adorable.”

Samantha nodded. “Quick getaway.”

“He just ran out. Maybe went...left?”

“Did he say anything?”

“Nothing.”

Samantha miked in to her radio. “Okay, everybody listen up. Code Condor. I want all available personnel to swarm the southwest corner of the grounds immediately. Our perp is a flasher. Wearing a black hat and tan jacket. A 24-year-old Caucasian. That’s all we got for now.”

Meanwhile, Dave and Josie were about to enter the Tropical Room when its heavy double doors burst open, and in came a badged man in wire rim glasses and a haircut so short it looked painted on. He held one palm out to stop them while he spoke into his walkie-talkie. “I’m in the Asian Jungle Room now. Got a family of three.” He then spoke officiously to Dave and Josie. “There’s been an incident. We need to ask you a few questions.” They both froze. Dave was sure they’d been caught on a hidden camera, which he’d given no thought to until that moment.

“We’re looking for an individual wearing a tan raincoat and a black hat. Have you seen him?”

Josie stepped up. “I did,” she volunteered. “Just a few minutes ago, I was coming to the entrance from the cassowaries in back, and he was going...I don’t know, the opposite way.”

The badge got back on frequency. “Confirmation of the perp headed southwest. In pursuit now.” He turned and bounded out of the room.

“Time to book it the other way,” Dave said. They whipped through the rest of the building to the exit, dropped Paloma back into the stroller, and headed toward the hoofed beasts of the African continent, passing their casual backup, Lee, finishing an ice cream cone at the railing in front of the springboks.

Eighty yards later, Tino motioned for them to pull up beside him in front of the stubby Mongolian wild horses. “Well?” he asked, pretending to read the information plaque.

“He’s in,” Dave answered. “He looks right at home. Ya did a good thing, man.”

“Thanks. I’m gonna miss the little bugger, but I guess I can always visit.”

“Sure. Just don’t get him started talking about Catface or Big Al’s dinettes. This place is crawling with security. See ya at the Merc’.”

“Thanks, Josie,” Tino added.

“My pleasure. This post-crime buzz is pretty tasty. I hope it’s not addictive.”

After dropping off Paloma and changing clothes, Dave and Josie were the last to show up at the Mercury Café for the cast party brunch. The Mayan crew, also shucked of their stage togs, and back into second-hand casual, were around three tables shuttled together banquet-style. The spread ran the organic gamut from hotcakes and omelettes to elk steaks and brandied coffee. Center stage were Black-eyed Susans in recycled glass jars and a pitcherful of Mimosa. Henry sat at the royal end, flanked by Gina and Marcy. Towering behind him was a vintage ceramic lamp of a turbaned African showgirl that lent a burlesque air to the proceedings. Mose Allison’s “Fool Killer” could be faintly heard playing on the house system.

Gina was finishing her account of the security confrontation. “So then I asked to use binoculars for the I.D., because I just couldn’t bear to be near this horrid creature again,” she said, kissing Henry on the cheek while everybody laughed.

“I was positively mortified by the accusation, as you can well imagine,” Henry added.

“'Why that’s not the man at all,' I told them and, naturally, they insisted he fit my description perfectly.”

“Which I did, of course.”

“I told them that the dirty, nasty man with his wickedness in his hand was in fact wearing a tan hat and a black raincoat, not the other way around, and I was terribly sorry, but my dyslexia is worse when I’m frustrated, and I’d meant also to say 42 instead of 24. Oh, what a reaction.”

“Followed by a fine, mad scramble for the real perpetrator, as you can imagine,” Henry added.

“It was positively guilt inducing.”

“Almost,” Henry corrected, raising his glass and proposing a toast before he stood up. “To the best covert theater in the history of this estimable decade.”

“Cheers,” rejoined the gathering.

Marcy lifted a glass of Mimosa. “Our little package is safe. And another measure of order is restored to the animal kingdom.”

Henry raised his glass again. “Drink up, me hearties. There’ll be a score o’ these dedications on this fine Colorado morning. The first is for Tino, beloved wrangler of our most meaningful property, progenitor of the whole idea, and to whom the play is hereby dedicated.”

“Yay, Tino.” Applause.

“And now,” Gina said, “Henry has an announcement.”

“Ladies and scamps. Gentlemen and scoundrels. This production was too worthy a crime, too exquisite a theatrical experience to resist a revisiting. My appetite is thoroughly whetted, and I see the same gleam right ‘round the table. I hereby invite this merry band of reprobates, rapscallions, and arrant knaves of a theatric bent—”

Tino started raising his hand.

“And assorted ne’er do wells, my good man. You are as welcome as the rest of these gifted felons. Thus, with so very much talent at our capable fingertips, I have been moved to establish, on this august day, The Pyramid Players, named for our dear Mayan Theatre. Who will join me on our next adventure?” he asked, raising his Bloody Mary crown high.

Everyone cheered and raised their glasses.

“To the next adventure,” Marcy declaimed.

“To the next adventure” came the chorus.

About the Author

Ran Diego Russell

Ran Diego Russell’s short fiction and poetry have appeared in the journals Witness, Spillway, Tar River Poetry, Oyez Review, The RavensPerch, and many others. His itinerant childhood rambled throughout the deserts and foothills of the Rocky Mountain region. Prior to his teaching career, he worked as a ranch hand, construction laborer, fruit picker, and truck driver. During his non-writing free time, it’s all about jazz bass, carpentry, and serving the Border collies’ energy.

Read more work by Ran Diego Russell.