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«NativeTongue», Carl Hiassen

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ONE

On July 16, in the aching torpid heat of the South Florida summer, Terry Whelper stood at the Avis counter at Miami International Airport and rented a bright red Chrysler LeBaron convertible. He had originally signed up for a Dodge Colt, a sensible low-mileage compact, but his wife had told him go on, be sporty for once in your life. So Terry Whelper got the red LeBaron plus the extra collision coverage, in anticipation of Miami drivers. Into the convertible he inserted the family – his wife Gerri, his son Jason, his daughter Jennifer – and bravely set out for the turnpike.

The children, who liked to play car games, began counting all the other LeBarons on the highway. By the time the Whelpers got to Snapper Creek, the total was up to seventeen. "And they're all rentals," Terry muttered. He felt like a fool; every tourist in Miami was driving a red LeBaron convertible.

"But look at all this legroom," said his wife.

From the back seat came Jennifer's voice: "Like, what if it rains?"

"Like, we put up the top," Terry said.

His wife scolded him for being sarcastic with their daughter. "She's only eleven, for heaven's sake."

"Sorry," said Terry Whelper. Then louder, over his shoulder: "Jenny, I'm sorry."

"For what?"

Terry shook his head. "Nothing, hon."

It started raining near Florida City, and of course the convertible top wouldn't go up; something was stuck, or maybe Terry wasn't pushing the right button on the dash. The Whelpers sought shelter at an Amoco station, parked near the full-service pumps and waited for the cloudburst to stop. Terry was dying to tell his wife I-told-you-so, sporty my ass, but she wouldn't look up from the paperback that she was pretending to read.

Jennifer asked, "Like, what if it rains all day and all night?"

"It won't," said Terry, trying hard to be civil.

The shower stopped in less than an hour, and the Whelpers were off again. While the kids used beach towels to dry off the interior of the convertible, Gerri passed around cans of Pepsi-Cola and snacks from the gas station vending machine. In vain Terry fiddled with the buttons on the car radio, trying to find a station that played soft rock.

The Whelpers were halfway down Card Sound Road when a blue pickup truck passed them the other way doing at least eighty. Without warning, something flew out of the truck driver's window and landed in the back seat of the LeBaron. Terry heard Jason yell; then Jennifer started to wail.

"Pull over!" Gerri cried.

"Easy does it," said her husband.

The convertible skidded to a halt in a spray of grass and gravel. The Whelpers scrambled from the car, checked themselves for injuries and reassembled by the side of the road.

"It was two guys," Jason declared, pointing down the road. "White guys, too."

"Are you sure?" asked his mother. The family had been on guard for possible trouble from blacks and Hispanics; a neighbor in Dearborn had given them the scoop on South Florida.

"They looked white to me," Jason said of the assailants.

Terry Whelper frowned. "I don't care if they were purple. Just tell me, what did they throw?"

Jennifer stopped crying long enough to say: "I dunno, but it's alive."

Terry said, "For Christ's sake." He walked over to the convertible and leaned inside for a look. "I don't see anything."

Jennifer cried even harder, a grating subhuman bray. "You...don't...believe...me!" she said, sobbing emphatically with each word.

"Of course we believe you," said her mother.

"I saw it, too," said Jason, who rarely took his sister's side on anything. "Try down on the floor, Dad."

Terry Whelper got into the back of the LeBaron, squeezed down to his knees and peered beneath the seat. The children heard him say, "Holy shit," then he leapt out of the car.

"What is it?" asked his wife.

"It's a rat," said Terry Whelper. "The ugliest goddamn rat I ever saw."

"They threw a rat in our car?"

"Apparently."

Jason said, "Too bad we didn't bring Grandpa's gun."

Gerri Whelper looked shaken and confused. "Why would they throw a rat in our car? Is it alive?"

"Very much so," Terry reported. "It's eating from a bag of Raisinets."

"Those are mine!" Jennifer cried.

The Whelpers stood there discussing the situation for fifteen minutes before a highway patrol car pulled up, and a young state trooper asked what was the matter. He listened sympathetically to the story about the rat in the rented LeBaron.

"You want me to call the Avis people?" he asked. "Maybe they'll send another car."

"Actually, we're on a pretty tight schedule," explained Gerri Whelper. "We've got reservations at a motor lodge in Key Largo. They said we had to be there by five or else we lose the rooms."

Jennifer, who had almost stopped crying, said: "I don't care about the motel, I want a different car."

Terry Whelper said to the trooper, "If you could just help me get rid of it."


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