Inquisitator’s Log: July 11, 20—; 11:53 pm
The Donald Q. Haute residence, Springstump Township
The electromail came in the night, heralded by a ping from my desktop computing-box. My Inquisitator’s training snapped me instantly from deepest REM to full wakefulness, and I leapt, puma-fashion, from the bed.
Subject: Porthos lost! Please help!
A foreboding fell upon me. This Porthos: a priceless diamondjade idol of ancient Mesopocambria? A white-bearded guru-monk who’d discovered the Muddy Lotus of Immortality and been abducted by nefarious agents unknown? I opened the electromail with a lightning tap on my clickermouse.
Hi Mr. Qhoute,
Porthos disappeared yesterday. She was by the fence last I saw her, digging. She can squeeze under if she digs hard, but usually the afternoons are too humid, so she gives up to lie in the shade or lap up pool water. But this time when I came out she was gone.
Our yard borders on a grapefruit grove that borders on the Everglades. No sign of her in the grove, and the police WILL NOT HELP!!! No response from our flyers either.
I remembered you from an Internet about your investigations. I believe ONLY YOU can BRING PORTHOS BACK SAFE. I will of course cover part of your costs. Please reply ASAP!
Lusitania D. Ballyhoo
Philodendron Furlongs, FL
P.S. There are rumors of something prowling the Everglades nearby, a creature unknown to regular science.
P.S.S. Porthos is half malamute, one-quarter Himalayan yak terrier, and the other quarter is kind of a question mark.
Did I hesitate? Ha! A mysterious crypto-creature, coupled with a some-expenses-paid Florida wetlands vacation in the sunny summertime? I replied in a flash.
Will arrive in two days’ time. Stop. Please prepare admixture of buckwheat flour and talcum powder, so I may begin immediately to dust for prints in the grove and in the Everglades beyond. Stop.
Yours in earnestness,
Inquisitator’s Log: July 13, 20—; 8:22 am
Springstump Municipal Aero-Jetplane Port
After a grueling day of preparation, I found myself at the aero-jetplane port, watching for my assistant. They’d paged her thrice: Sammy Jo P—-, please approach the ticket counter at Gate Zeta-Three-Dee. The aerocraft had boarded, and I was holding the gate, craning my neck, when finally she came jogging into view.
“What kept you?” I called.
“You said 9:30.”
“No, 8:30; definitely 8:30. Did you mis-hear me?”
“Well, you said it only once, followed by a verbal list of, as I counted, twenty-seven items to buy… and didn’t mention an airline or flight number, and hung up before I could get a word in edgewise—”
As the attendant herded us down the porta-tunnel, I admonished and exhorted my callow amanuensis.
“I’ve told you before, Sammy Jo: In the Lexipaedia Inquisitatus under E, you’ll find neither hair nor hide of the word excuse. Don’t you remember the Seventeenth Credo? Excuses are like endocrine systems: everyone seems to have one, but there’s no explaining what earthly purpose they serve.”
We were buckling in when, under her breath, Sammy Jo mumbled what sounded like “funky Inquisitating can bind my adze.” I presumed she was reciting—erringly—some obscure Lexipaedia entry.
Inquisitator’s Log: July 13, 20—; 2:42 pm
Philodendron Furlongs, South Florida
A handbill, evidently printed on a desktop computa-inker, adorned a telephone pole in front of the Ballyhoo residence:
Answers to “Porthos”
Reward for Information Leading To
Above this was a digi-pic of the dear departed. His black-and-white eyes sparkled behind fluffs of black-and-white fur, right up to the tips of his scampish black-and-white ears. Black-and-white puffy legs terminated in perfectly proportioned black-and-white front paws.
“Colored ink might’ve done her more justice,” said Sammy Jo.
Our tapping with the flamingo-themed doorknocker was answered by a respectable-looking platinum-haired EuroAmerican pensioner-gal wearing raccoon-themed slippers, shiny sweat-trousers, and a flamingo-themed hoodsweater. Love and grief, mingled with determination, burned behind black eyelashes as thick and vivacious as a lunging nest of newborn snakes.
She waved us in, and as she guided us to the kitchen table-ette, I introduced myself and Sammy Jo, “My assistant, protégée, and mentee.”
“Manatee??” Ms. Ballyhoo blinked blankly. “So you’re half—I mean, I didn’t know that was possible…”
Sammy Jo explained, then—as an A.B.D. degree holder in the zoological sciences—the fine distinction between an apprentice and a cud-chewing aquatic mammal.
“Let’s delay no longer!” I interjected. “Show me where your fur-bearing friend Porthos was last seen.”
Our host led us onto a screened patio—by Vesuvius, the humidity!!!—where she pointed to a hole under the vinyl fence, beyond which loomed a grove of grapefruit trees. Turning back to Ms. Ballyhoo, I noted a wellspring of tears flooding her eyes; as my heartstrings twanged, I mentally genuflected to Madame Helena Rubinstein, inventor of waterproof mascara.
A professionally fenced grapefruit grove is no daunting target for the master Inquisitator, particularly when the gate boasts no lock, nor even a functioning latch. Yet dust as I might for paw-prints, or shoe-prints—I hadn’t ruled out the vile crime of caninus abductimem—nothing was revealed, even by Sammy Jo’s trained zoologist’s eye or my ear-mounted maxi-magnifying lens. We did soon discern, though, that we were not alone in the grove.
“We’re not alone in the grove,” whispered Sammy Jo.
My Inquisitator’s keen fivefold senses told me she was right—and that this was no career grapefruitsman, this young fellow tramping toward us, yammering at his upraised porta-Y-Phone. A splash of bleached hair enmaned his pale, sparse-bearded face, and against the sun’s ravages—by Hephaestus’s forges, the heat!!!—he was warded only by a white Tee-shirt bearing the red MeeMeeMeeeToob® logo. As he approached he was filming his own face, which caused him to trip and tumble over a green grapefruit-to-be.
“He’s one of those amateur Webnet journalists,” I murmured. “Log-floggers, I believe they’re called.”
“Sounds about right,” said Sammy Jo.
“Just what do you know,” intoned the flogger, regaining his feet, “about the disappearance of Porthos, the Hound of the Ballyhoos?” He flipped the cam-phone upon us.
“First,” said Sammy Jo, “a malamute-terrier cross is not a hound, you moth-wit. And second…” Second was a flurry of expletives and bleep-words I shan’t repeat.
“Florida Statute X-slash-Zed-slash-Twenty-two, subsection Seven-Bee, proscribes filming private citizens without express signatory permission,” I touchéd.
“Except,” answered this gadfly, “when the subject is in toto of committing a crime… such as trespassing in a grapefruit grove.”
He had us there. I sleeve-mopped my sweat-sopped brow.
“Um, in toto, Bumbledork?” said Sammy Jo. “Then there’s how you’ve been filming yourself committing that same infraction…”
Undeterred, the fellow inched forward, cameraphone still rolling. I could now see his press-pass—Largo Ponce was his name—but a) it was clearly falsified, a home-rigged ID-card-and-lanyard mockup; and b) grapefruit groves do not, as a rule, rigorously verify press credentials.
I pointed pointedly. “That card might fool the rubes, but you’ve met your match-maker in this trained Inquisitator! Besides—a true journalist would carry a microphone adorned with teevee station initials.”
At this, Ponce looked down to his sad excuse for a press-pass… and froze.
Beneath his Doo-Dee-Das sneakerkicks lay what appeared to be a shedded snake-skin—the largest this globe-roaming Inquisitator had ever seen. I’d read about the recent Everglades python infestoonment, so this was no great surprise. Then Sammy Jo gasped. She strode forward, and Largo Ponce the MeeMeeMeeeToober skipped back, clear of the skin-husk.
Sammy Jo gingerly hoisted the skin. Large. Thick. Then she spread it out, so it became clear to see…
The snake-skin sported a pair of what looked for all the world like short mesh sleeves. Whatever foul serpent had slouched toward the Ballyhoo house had legs.
We snooped around the grove further, seeking other traces of the thing whose cast-off husk we’d found. For Largo Ponce, the late-afternoon heat proved too much—as a native Floridian he was more acclimated to the bracing chill of airconditioned homes, airconditioned stores, airconditioned schools, and airconditioned automocars—so he soon departed.
The heat—by Jove’s thunderbolts, the heat!!!—had begun to abate, and light was fading, as Sammy Jo and I scouted a last lip of turf abutting the Everglades.
“It’s very wet,” I observed.
“They call it the River of Grass,” Sammy Jo replied.
“On a state map this region appears as land, but its actual state is hardly such stately dry land—aside from those little islands.”
“Hammocks,” said Sammy Jo.
“Ham-hocks? So called because they’re frequented by the Everglades Ever-pig?”
“Ham-mocks,” she repeated.
At that moment our conversationalizing, and the quiet of Everglades dusk, were interrupted by a swoosh-swooshing of boots in the long grass and the splish-splashing of… not far off, a scientific-looking bearded fellow, of pink-skinned Caucasian stock and middling age, was sampling with a scoop in the shallows at the Glades’ edge. I hailed him.
“A fellow scientifico?” I called. He ignored me. The Inquisitator, though, is not lint on a trouser-leg, so easily brushed off. “Are you a student of the bio-ecologic disciplines?” Still nothing. I persisted: “What do you make, monsignor…” I motioned to Sammy Jo—who’d tucked the skin into her day-pack, and now produced it— “…of this?”
At the sight of what dangled from Sammy Jo’s hands, he halted. Then he approached—a tall thick fellow in a very scientifically rigorous hat.
“Where… did you find this?”
“In the grove.” Sammy Jo gestured. “The South Florida biome’s outside my expertise, but still—something’s off with this, isn’t it?”
The bio-ecologist flusteredly unpocketed a tape-o’-the-measure and took the shedded skin’s dimensions. He stared.
“So?” Sammy Jo gently refolded the skin.
“91 centimeters…” the eco-biologizer murmured. Then, assertively: “I’ll need to take that for further study. This is federal parkland; you’re not permitted to remove flora or fauna.” He extended a hand.
“But what is it?” said Sammy Jo. “And who exactly are you?”
“Invasive species.” The man gimme’d with his fingertips.
Sammy Jo looked to me. A zoologist and her moult-leavings are not soon parted, as the saying goes. But the Inquisitator’s Code is clear about respecting authoritative personages. I scooped the skin from her reluctant hands and passed it to the man, along with my calling-card.
“Please contact me, sirrah, when you conclude anything. We’re investigating a lost pet, who answers to Porthos, and fear this serpentonic invader may be implicated.”
The fellow disregarded me, drifting away as one bedazed, gazing at the skin.
“You have to at least get his—” muttered Sammy Jo, then shouted, “What’s your name?”
“Frank,” the man answered, and departed into the Everglade night. Now a barking, distant but distinct, sounded over the waters. I marked my position, noted the time, and bi-angulated the sound’s origin with the constellation Puppis. We’d no embarkable means of pursuing the barking this night; but pursue it we would.
Inquisitator’s Log: July 14, 20—; 6:24 am
Philodendron Furlongs, Florida
The flogger Largo Ponce came a-knocking early, as Sammy Jo and I were leaving the Ballyhoo home. We ignored him as we boarded the rent-a-mobile, until he crowed, “I got a lot of comments on that vlog—the most ever. Some da-bomb theories about Porthos, and about it. I even gave it a name.”
Though Sammy Jo frowned fire, my training was to leave no stone’s moss ungathered. “What theories, pray tell?”
“Well, like that old lady Ballyhoo kidnapped her own dog: a false-flag dognapping.”
When I remo-unlocked the rent-a-mobile, Ponce yanked open a door and hurled himself into the back seat.
“You weren’t invited,” I scolded.
Sammy Jo shot a hand in and took hold of the young scamp’s shoulder. “Why in shit’s name would she kidnap her own dog?”
Ponce launched into an explication, holding up his ‘phone to show a tangled chart of governmental and nonexistent-organizational connections. After three minutes, Sammy Jo muscled him from the automocar—he filmed this, of course.
“Maybe you’re both actors in the false-flag too,” he wailed. Sammy Jo started the rent-a, but before shutting my door, I turned to Ponce.
“You said you gave it a name?”
“I did. I call it… the alli-thon.”
We’d found a purveyor of aeroprop-boats catering to early-rising swamp-hoppers. The sun was only just ascending behind us as, after a perfunctory tutorial, Sammy Jo brrrmmmm’ed the aero-propulsor to a roar and blew us out into the vast shallows of the Everglades. Borrowing Sammy Jo’s tech-a-phone, I web-skated to Ponce’s flogsite: 7,204 views between dusk and dawn. Porthos’s travails had set the flog-world afire.
I vigilated in the bow as we beelined toward the heading I’d marked. Alligators—the standard-issue type—drifted loggishly, while birds of every hue in the colored-pencil box fished, floated, or flapped all around. On one island—one hammock—after another, we disemboated and searched. But we heard no barking, nor saw sign of that other dread creature.
Inquisitator’s Log: July 14, 20—; 10:27 am
The Everglades, Florida
Hours later, dripping with sweat—Deus Ex Infernus, the heat!!!—and bebothered by buzz-bugs, we paused in a hammock-tree’s shade. Sammy Jo tickled her Y-Phone’s vidscreen.
“Oh … my … balls.” Her eyes grew wide as sorcerers.
“What is it?”
“Largo Ponce…” She turned the ‘phone my way. There was Ponce, wearing bespoke chest-waders, trudging knee-deep into the Everglades. He’d braved the heat and set off into this vastest of wetlands alone to find “The Truth about Porthos!!!” Some minutes in, he remarked that his batteries were “low as shit”—then gasped, spun the ‘phone away from his own face… and it kept spinning and ker-plupped into the water. The vid-log murked, and blacked out.
“Oh … my … balls,” Sammy Jo repeated.
The response was swift. By early afternoon the Everglades were humming with helichoppers, brmm’ing with aeroprop-boats, and hrumphing with hunters. We kept up our own search—for Porthos? For Ponce? In seeking we might find one, the other, or both, so seek we did.
As we aeroboated, we listened to floggers and major news channels alike speculating whether Ponce had merely mis-stepped, dropped his ‘phone, and now wandered lost, or whether he’d been ensnared by… apparently none had watched the vidfootage where Ponce named the creature; they’d all taken to calling it the croco-py.
“In this vast queendom of alligator mississippiensis, that’s what they call it?” Sammy Jo grumped as she cozied the boat up to yet another hammock. “Whatever it is, damn sure it’s not a crocodile.”
Every Y’all-Mart store south of Kissimmee must have been denuded of shot- and rifle- and autosemi-minicannon guns, of ammoshells, and of camocaps, camopants, camovests, and camototebags. A sporadic chorus of hues and cries; a popcorn-symphony of gunshots; the occasional hissplash of bullets hitting still waters. Hunters levelled their sights at gators, at imagined pythons—at anything that flitted, flapped, or skittered.
By early afternoon we spotted the first re-outfitted aeroprop-tour-boat, boasting a hand-painted sign:
CROCO-PY TOURS!! HELP FIND PONCE AND PORTHOS!!!
ADULTS $23.00, CHILDREN $22.50
and at 2:12 pm, our august President lent the force of his bullying pull-pit by Tooting on his Twit-horn account:
Terrorist CROCO-PY strikes again and losercrats do nothing. Scumbags want IMMIGRANTS AND CROCO-PYS to eat your Real American babys. CrocOpy/Imigrant Wall…
…is only soLuTion.
Soon thereafter, more crackle of firearm-fire, then a distinctly proximate THOOM—and water poured in through a shotgun-spray bite in the ‘boat’s low-riding hull.
“Swiftly!” I cried. “Give me your pants!” Sammy Jo ignored me, though, preoccupied with something on her leg. Without a centi-second to waste, I yanked up my ankle-zippers, de-trousered myself, and stuffed my waterproof khaki M.M. Spleen breeches into the breach. This did prevent swampwater from swamping our boat; relieved, I turned to see Sammy Jo picking bloody slivers of aluminum boat-hull out of her lower leg. The wound was far from mortal, and as I applied second-aid, I mused upon what more dire danger we’d be in if not surrounded by good guys with guns.
Though uncertain of direction—Sammy Jo’s Y-Phone lay now inert, devoided of charge—we carried on. Rampant as public response had been, we were at no moment alone. There were the two mustachioed AlabamaCaucasians—convinced Ponce and Porthos had been spirited away by a Bigfooted Sasquatch—who questioned us zealously. Then came the trio of bushy-bearded whitepeople Oregonians, certain these had been Chupacabra attacks—and that we were in cahoots with the ‘cabra. No sooner had we extricated ourselves from their Third Degree than a third group accosted us.
“Where are they?” accused the first of the quadrille of Michiganians, who also happened to be white, all dressed in flag-and-eagle-motifed jumpsuits. Who was I to judge apparelments, though, as with trousers stopping up boat leaks I greeted them in bare legs and Inquisitator-issue orange-drab undershorts?
“You mean Ponce and Porthos.” Weariness weighted Sammy Jo’s voice.
“They know,” growled the second Michiganator.
“Wing fur,” hissed the third, whose demeanor marked him as the squad capitan. “Search the boat. Search them.”
“What do you urine-soaked shitstains think you’re doing?!” protested Sammy Jo as the first two schlumped into our ‘boat, tottering, splashing gladeswater over the gunwales.
“We’ve seen enough to know—” the leader eye-scoured us—”when somebody’s in league with—”
“Mothman,” singsonged the fourth, a short pinktanned fellow with eyes twitchy and wild as sparklers.
“Mothman?!” It was Sammy Jo’s turn to bug her eyes out.
I intervened. “The Mothman, if such exists, is adapted to the monongahela silt loam and beech forests of west-southwestern West Virginia. Like a rare orchid or a hothouse zucchini, the likely-apocryphal Mothman could not readily inhabitate these sultry wetlands.”
“Just what a fella’d say if he was hiding a Mothman,” said the leader. One of his hench-hunters began to frisk Sammy Jo’s dorsal area for concealed moth-wings; she beat his hands away.
A tense standoff ensued. These patriotic Americans were slinging guns, and I visualized which of my Bart-itsu moves might disarm multiple Mothmanites without overturning a watercraft. No sooner had I assumed a double-spearhand altercative pose, though, than the men relented and retreated to their own rent-a-vessel.
With a stridulous parting shot—”Mothman lovers”—the leader signaled the wiry fourth fellow to start the ‘boat, which he did, repeating “Mothman” before throttling up and steering away.
As the afternoon wore on, Sammy Jo and I drew away, deeper into the River of Grass—away from the kerfuffular hullabaloo—and I confess we wound up adrift.
Refueling stations are not to be found on every block in the Everglades. In fact, there are no blocks in the Everglades. Thus we ended up, as Phoebus Apollo’s punishing sun-chariot retreated to its nocturnal garage, stuck some yards away from a hammock—mucking through water to the waists of our chest-waders, tugging the dead-weight aeroprop-boat behind.
“I am gratified,” I said, hands blistering on the tug-rope, “that we brought campage gear, in alignment with Inquisitator preparedness standards.”
“A pup tent with no sleeping bags,” groaned Sammy Jo. “And only because I added it to the list.”
“Flint and tinder for fire—”
“A grill-lighter,” she interrupted. “I knew which of us would spend a half-hour squatting in lacerating sawgrass, swiping with a rock for sparks.”
“A packful of waterproof regulation playing cards, 52 plus jokers, to keep us diversionably entertained—”
“But not a drop of wine. Or beer. Or tequila. Or even gin,” Sammy Jo finished. “Shows what you know about the great outdoors.”
We’d arrived at the hammock. Sammy Jo tied off the ‘boat, and we clambered onto land in the last vestiges of twilight. We moved toward what looked like open—if lumpy—ground beyond thick undergrowth, poking with a walking-stick to disperse any hostile fauna.
At the clearing’s edge, under clouded moonlight, I handed my walking-stick to Sammy Jo and ignited my flash-torch as I moved to step onto the uneven ground. I halted, though, with foot poised in midair.
Much as homo sapienses have evening haunts, favored party-places, so apparently do alligators. The clearing where we’d intended to camp was one such nighttime hot-spot for saurians beyond count. And though they seemed unbothered by their own kin crowding against, slumping upon, even creeping over them, I intuited that my feet would elicit a different response—call it speciesism, but we weren’t inclined to argue diversity theory with an alligator horde.
Treating absquatulation as the better part of valor, we turned tail.
From the refuge of the inert ‘boat, we scanned the horizon. North-by-west-northwest, a wide tuft of growth broke the star-speckled horizon: another hammock.
Getting there, though, in an unmotile aeroprop-boat, was no easy matter. Harkening to Credo 71 of the Inquisitator’s Code—Be prepared; but if preparation is the parent, it’s apparent that it must be paired with its providential progeny, improvisation—we used a soup ladle and a metal meter-stick from our knapsacks as paddles to propel the heavy ‘boat.
We were beyond weary when we heard the unmistakable hummmm of another aeroprop-boat.
Sammy Jo and I shouted and waved flashlights, and I even ignited a flare to brandish. The ‘boat drew nearer… rescuetour operator?… Everglades Five-Oh Swamppolice?… and then was upon us, droning down to a slow drift as the bow-wave rocked us. In the flare-glare, we saw the occupants: a teen-aged First Nations youth and his teen-aged girlfriend, half Indian and half—my keen Inquisitator’s eye was hampered by harsh flare-light—Pakistani? Bengali? Indian?
“You guys okay?” the boy asked.
I bowed my gratitude. “For the moment, yes—”
“But we could use a ride, or a good splash of fuel, to get us back to civilization,” Sammy Jo chimed in.
The boy shook his head. “I’m running on fumes. Pops has been draining the tank at nights—something about keeping me from running amok.”
“We can send someone in the morning,” the girl added. “We’re not headed home just yet.” Sammy Jo turned to me, rolled her eyes, and mouthed teen-agers.
Then she sighed. “I don’t relish spending the night on the floor of this boat.”
“Could you at least tow us to that hammock?” I gestured.
“Logni Isle? Not the best place to spend a night,” the boy warned.
“Why not?” asked Sammy Jo, but both boy and girl merely shook their heads.
“We could tow you over there,” said the boy. “But my advice would be to lay low, or better yet, don’t get out of the boat.”
They towed us—a slow progress, with their propellant-fan blowing hugely in our faces—and set us loose just offshore, promising again to send help in the morning. Then they rode off, with a mutual touching of gluteal regions—a form of contact I presumed must be rooted in Seminole or Miccosukee tradition.
“It’s hot, even this time of night,” I said. Sammy Jo and I lay curled discomfitedly in the ‘boat, which we’d tied to an arching tree-root beside Logni Isle.
“Damn straight. And humid. And buggy. And sober.”
“I suppose I ought to apologize. This was my Inquisitation, yet here you are, ever-faithful Sammy Jo, bearing your part of the burden—including birdshot in the leg, no less—with admirable composure.”
I heard her shift to face me. “What, you think I’m surprised to get into a bizarre and needlessly dangerous situation, accompanying you on one of these… whatever these trips are.”
“Still,” I answered. “Educating an aspiring Inquisitator is a delicate balance. As the Lexipaedia Inquisitatus points out, criticism comprises a conduit to consummate competency, while praise is potentially a poison. Sometimes, though, a compliment is warranted. You’ve been a worthy—”
Sammy Jo laughed, a musical sound. “As much as all this Inquisiting—”
“Inquisitating,” I corrected.
“—as all this Inquisitating is kind of a… well, scientifically speaking, it’s—you know…”
“Unconventional,” I supplied.
She laughed again. “Unconventional. Right. Still, I’ve seen and done a lot I never would’ve, and it really is never a dull moment.”
Sammy Jo inclined forward on the bench-slat between us. I sat up too. Our faces were close, in the murky-mooned night. Under her sweat- and rain-bedraggled mop of dark hair, those coffee-colored eyes were lovely.
“Have you,” she half-whispered, “ever thought about—”
And just then a pattering rain began to fall, swiftly intensifying into a drumroll on the aluminum hull.
The quiet moment gave way to a flurry of action: pulling ponchos from packs, and endeavoring to cover the boat.
“We daren’t sleep here,” I said at last. Try as we might, rain could not be kept out; to slumber aboat was to risk swamping or drowning in the night.
So we set off with our supplies, with the tent, leaping onto wet roots for a foothold on the island. There we found a game-trail of sorts, about shoulder width. We followed its twists and turns, vaguely illumined by flashlight, in the pouring rain. The trail dead-ended at the best spot we’d seen, a flattish patch between the “knees” of a banyan tree. There we attempted to pitch our tent.
“Son of a bee-hutch!” Sammy Jo rasped.
I looked at her blankly.
“The tent fly—I took it out of my pack, digging for a poncho, and left it in the boat.” With this, Sammy Jo tromped off, flashlight beam skimming before her. I sheltered as best I could in the fly-less tent, but rain poured right through the mesh crown and onto my own poncho-domed crown.
We’d pitched the tent facing the tree, so we’d have cover for any ingresses and egresses, and I’d left the zip-gap open in expectation of Sammy Jo’s return. This proved to be an error when I heard a rustling from the entry behind me and felt the sudden shock of a tazerizer zapgunning my nervous system, rendering my finely honed neural reflexes useless. I then felt a net thrown over me, then a sack over my head, and a lariat-hoop pinned my arms to my torso. Visionless, I struggled, but more zapgunning broke my resistance, and I was dragged across a short span into what seemed, against all probability, to be an elevator.
Here I doubted my own sanity, but my razor-sharp Inquisitator’s training kicked in and I sniffed. Yes—the distinctive scent of elevator was unmistakable.
What vile trap was this, yanking me from the safety of a rain-inundated, alligator-, insect-, and snake-inhabited hammock, down, down to some elevator-accessible Goblin-Town?
After some further dragging—I’d gone limp, to conserve my strength—the sack was pulled from my head. Blinking in fluorescing light, I saw a resoundingly luxuriant science-laboratory. The lab-table countertop was plated in gold, as were the faucet-taps. Plush velvet wallpaper descended to baseplates also trimmed in gold, which gave way to mahogany flooring, upon whose elegant hardwoodenness I now sprawled, bound. All around were cages or tanks housing mice, drosophila flies, geckos, garter snakes, and more.
And staring at me from my side was, to my shock and undoing, Dr. Frank.
“Why—” I began, then, curious, shifted gearshifters: “How do you afford all this?”
“I’m a global warming scientist,” he answered. “So long as I propound the position of anthropogenic global warming, the government grants unlimited funding. Most global warming scientists have gold-plated laboratories and homes, while those who question human influence on climate live on dog food in hovels, at least until they’re murdered by the black helicopters.”
“You live here…” I posited. It is the Inquisitator’s job to weld observation to intuition, forging a Sword of Knowingfulness that slices to the heart of things. The unmade bed in this studio-room, and the trash receptacle overflowing with micro-ovened meal containers were, I admit, useful clues.
He nodded. “Alone,” he said, trying to hide a mournful note.
Yet this was not quite true: I glanced around again at the abundance of captivificated life. Then I gasped. In a large, well-appointed cage to my right, granite water and food bowls beside it bespeckled with what looked like diamonds, rested a familiar-looking specimen of puppidoggus domesticus.
Though she didn’t rise, the wayward bitch twitched her ears, wagged her tail, and turned sleepy, soulful eyes my way.
“I found her again early this morning,” said Dr. Frank. A thought struck him, and he patted himself for his keys, finding them at last in the pocket of his white silk lab coat. “But it wasn’t her I was looking for.”
Then it all became clear, clear as a solution of acetate blended with vodka. “The Croco-py!!!” I shouted. “It’s the Croco-py, the Alli-thon, you were truly looking for!” Waving my leg at the test tubes, genesplicing machines, and enormous tank-enclosure at the room’s center, I cried, “You are its creator! Its progenitator!”
He spun to face me. “Stop calling it that!! Alli-thon?? Croco-py??! Any culture that creates such idiotic mashed-up names…” Dr. Frank now began rummaging through drawers and cabinets full of science-doing thingamawhatzits, as I covertly struggled to free myself—without success. At last he found what he’d sought: a wire-y mesh of electro-nodes, which I surmised to be either a fiendish interrogation device or lights for a Christmas wreath.
But Christmas was five months away.
“Do you mean to torture me?”
Dr. Frank smiled. “I mean to wipe your memory. True, this will be its first test, but if the device works, all knowledge of me, my secret laboratory—and of the creature—will be erased. Forever.”
“But the first two of those would be unnecessary if you’d simply not abducted me,” I observed.
Dr. Frank scowled as he looked, next, for an extension cord. After further scrounging through drawers, cabinets, and piles he had just triumphantly produced an orange one, of the 50-foot variety—when the elevator bell bing’d.
Dr. Frank whirled, extension cord in one hand, tazerizer in the other, as Sammy Jo leapt through the ‘vator door into the lab.
She was unarmed, nothing to hand but the aforementioned tent-fly. But seeing me bound on the floor, and a taser-armed scientificator glaring at her, Sammy Jo took action. Stretching the vinyl-plasticene tent-fly taut, she pump-twirled it from both ends, as middle-schoolers do to transform a wet towel into a rat’s-tail bullywhip.
They circled one another like Florida panthers, if in fact enough of those still exist to ever encounter one another. A feint by one… a feint by the other… the crackle of a tazerizer; the crack of a tent-fly whip… the “Ouch!! That stings!!” of a bearded white man with a low pain threshold… then, in passing where I lay bound on the floor, Dr. Frank came too close.
I thrust out a leg and tripped him up, so that he stumbled; he dropped the tazerizer to break his fall. He recovered, but before he could recover the weapon, Sammy Jo covered the distance with a pounce like—I already used panther, so let’s say a pounce like a caracal. As Dr. Frank reached for the shock-gun, her fist shot out. It thwumped into his face. This time he sprawled onto the floor with an “ow ow ow ow ow!!!” while Sammy Jo also backed away, knuckle to mouth, squandering a layman’s lifetime supply of mother f-ers and son of a b-words.
“I’ve been doing kickboxing at the gym, but Jesus Christ a human face is fucking hard!” she shouted, and took it out on Dr. Frank by kicking him in the leg.
“Aaargh, Charley horse!” he wailed, and with this the outcome of the fisticuffs/footsicuffs was decided.
Sammy Jo commandeered the tazerizer and untied me while keeping a watchful eye on the now-very-mad scientist. We’d nearly reached the elevator when the bell bing’d one more time.
First Nations rescuers, whether teen-aged or otherwise? An accomplice of Dr. Frank’s, to thwart our departure? A brown-uniformed National Park Service SWAT-battalion?
But when the doors opened, every one of us flinch-skittered back, for what emerged was—well, you’ve probably formed a mental picture already: half python, half alligator, enormous, though low to the floor and aero- and aqua-dynamic. Gliding into the lab, it eyed us all with a menace that transcended the reptilian and approached the human; we all recoiled still further. Yet it let us be, slither-plodding with surprising grace toward the chained Porthos. Though we dreaded what might come, not one of us deigned to intervene; instead we three, Sammy Jo, Dr. Frank, and I, all tumbled into the elevator and rammed fingers at the “UP” button.
The doors closed.
“You created that thing?” said Sammy Jo.
“I did.” Dr. Frank’s head slunk.
“But why?” I said.
“After decades of climate research, to strike fear into a populace that refuses to fear the more abstractly terrifying… to attempt what had never been done before… and maybe, just a little, because I wanted a companion…”
“You could’ve adopted a cat, or a dog,” said Sammy Jo; the word dog sparked regrettable associations with poor Porthos. The elevator arrived at ground level and we all stepped out of the tree housing the elevator into a quiet night. The rain had stopped. Leaving the tent be—for lingering by the elevator was no option—we made our way over rain-saturated ground to where the airboat floated: our best refuge, though really no refuge at all. We sat silent in the boat, for minutes uncounted, until—
A rustling in the sawgrass. We all sat bolt upright.
Sammy Jo pointed the beam of her flash-light. There, emerging from the sawgrass, was the face of the creature. Though its stare locked on us, it diverted course from our boat and slipped gracefully, soundlessly, into the water.
To our rejoicement, behind it came Porthos. The serpentuous creature cast a longing gaze that way, while Sammy Jo and I clapped our hands and called out:
“Porthos! Here girl! Come, Porthos!!”
Porthos vacillated, nosing at the creature, at us, back at the creature. Then we heard a voice we never expected to hear, a hissing, guttural, yet somehow mesmeric voice.
“Come, Porthosss. The River of Grasss shall be bed, battthhhhh, and home to usss, and we will live in fffreedom, liberated fffrom hhhuman massstersss,” spake the creature.
Fffreedom, though, is just another word for nothing left to lose; Porthos had waiting back at Ms. Ballyhoo’s a cozy bed, frequent meals, and a sweater for when the Florida winters dipped below 68 degrees. Porthos made her choice: she hopped into the airboat, into the familiarity of human company.
And how is it that the creature, unholy amalgamism of the serpentastic and crocodillyicious, was able to speak in human tongues? Who can say? Genetic intermixing is ever a roll of the dice; the result here was fortuitous, allowing the creature to speak words thematically relevant to this tale.
Looking away from Porthos, to the sky, to stars behind thinning clouds, to cruel Fate, the creature crawled onto a nearby log of an icy pallor.
Dr. Frank called out: “Don’t leave me! Stay! How can I bear knowing my child, my finest creation, is wandering alone, preying, wreaking destruction and inviting its own destruction too? Please…”
“Sssuffering?” the creature answered. “What can you know of sssuffering? Of the sssuffering of a sssoul who, knowing right from wrong, virtue from vicccce, ssstill was forccced to track and kill the sssapient raccoon, the prissstine sssnowy egret, and the ffflamboyant ffflamingo, to sssate an unending hunger? The sssuffering of a sssensitive being who never got a sssingle sssyllable of reply from itsss brother the Burmessse pythhhon, or from the noble alligator, its sssissster?”
“They don’t really speak to anyone,” Sammy Jo consoled; but the creature seemed not to hear.
“No companion, no love, no compassion, not even that of a fffaithhhful canine,” it continued, stink-eyeing Porthos. The waters of the Everglades do flow, but at the glacial pace of about one meter per hour, so the log-bound creature had ample time to make its speech. In fact, I heard what sounded like claws paddling, an effort to speed things up. “I shall keep drifffting until this log reachesss the extremity of the Earth’sss middle, letting hunger and the remorselesss sssun have their way, until I am extinguished entirely. What I have ssseen… I have ssseen murk of mud, rapture of rain, sssolaccce of sssky…” The creature hissed more loudly, crescendoing toward a dramatic climax. “I have ssseen shitheelsss burning rubber off the coassst of Pembroke Pinesss. All I’ve ssseen, all I’ve known, gone, like crocodile tearsss in the rain…” It had drifted only inches, but the creature lowered its voice to enhance the illusion of distance, so its final words carried but faintly over the water: “The ressst isss sssilenccce.” And it paddled harder and was borne away, very slowly, and was lost in the dank Florida dark.
Dr. Frank wept. Neither Sammy Jo nor I could muster any sympathy for him, though, and at length, to break the maudlin spell of his sobbing, Sammy Jo spoke up:
“It may have been derivative, but that was still far and away the most impressive fucking speech I have ever heard from a reptile.”
At morning light, good as their word, the First Nations teens returned—and we were saved. Arriving at civilization, we parted ways with Dr. Frank, who’d sobbed and sniffled all night until even Porthos covered her ears. Sammy Jo suggested criminal charges. But Porthos had been well cared for; Florida has no statute against possession of an unlicensed python-alligator hybrid; my captivity had lasted mere minutes; and Dr. Frank had already tasted the business end of a Sammy Jo drubbing. So we let bygones go on by, not least because even at 8 a.m., standing another minute out in the heat—by Surtur’s flaming Ragnarok-sword, the heat!!!—was unthinkable.
Ms. Ballyhoo gushed at Porthos’s homecoming, and produced the promised reward. And what of Largo Ponce? We heard no word, and in subsequent weeks, his webputer v-flog saw no postings.
Inquisitator’s Log: July 15, 20—; 5:43 pm
Bovard County Aero-Jetplane Port, Florida
“I said it before: Vloggers are not an endangered species,” said Sammy Jo, as we sat in a Seattlebucks Coffee-café facing our departure gate.
“Keep in mind the 112th Maxim of the Inquisitator’s Code: Every being is a manifestation of the All-nourishing UniForce, even a preening, mystifyingly self-absorbed log-flogger.”
Sammy Jo pressed a napkin full of ice against her bruised knuckles. As for her enshrapnellated leg, our hostess had neatly antisepticized and bandaged it. “Ms. Ballyhoo was definitely a manifestation of that. How much was the reward?”
“Let’s just say that even after this coffee-and-pastry indulgence, enough will remain to pay the autocarpark fee back in fair Springstump Township.”
Sammy Jo readied an ungenerous phrase, but I interrupted. “We must always recollect: Inquisitation is its own reward. I’m just glad she and Porthos once again have one another. Companionship means so much to laypeople—those who have not chosen the solitudinous ways of the Inquisitator.”
“Companionship,” Sammy Jo repeated, and fixed me with a meaningful yet cryptic look. She raised her coffee mug. We clinked a toast. “Do you think that creature was right? That true companionship is a will-o-the-wisp, a flash of swamp-gas? That we’re all, in the depths of our souls, truly alone? And also—are you going to eat the other half of that bearclaw?”
Her deeper questions had never been satisfactorily answered by scholar, poet, sage, nor even by the Lexipaedia Inquisitatus; as with the creature, only silence could be my answer.
I slid the plate across the table. With reflexes worthy of a true Bart-itsu adept, she snatched it up, and the bearclaw was soon borne away, and lost in the dark of Sammy Jo’s gullet.