Dave Barry

Naked Came the Manatee: Chapter One

Naked Came the Manatee was a serialized novel, written by the biggest names in South Florida fiction, and published in Tropic Magazine in 1995. Below is the first chapter, written by Dave Barry.

Saturday night, Coconut Grove.

It was the usual scene: Thousands of people, not one of whom a normal person would call normal.

There were the European tourists, getting off their big fume-belching buses, wearing their new jeans and their Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts, which they bought when their charter bus stopped in Orlando. They moved in chattering clots, following their flag-waving tour directors, lining up outside Planet Hollywood, checking out the wall where famous movie stars had made impressions of their hands in the cement squares, taking videos of each other putting their palms in the exact same spot where Bruce Willis once put his palm.

Eventually they'd be admitted, past the velvet ropes, get an actual table, order an actual cheeseburger. This, truly, was America: Eating cheeseburgers with other European tourists.

Outside, the pulsating mutant throng was gearing up for the all-night street party, fashion bazaar and freak show that the Grove becomes on weekend nights. Squadrons of young singles -- bodies taut, hair perfect, clothes fashionable, minds empty -- relentlessly roamed the CocoWalk Multi-Level Shopping And Pickup Complex, checking out each other, admiring themselves. Everywhere for blocks around there were peddlers peddling, posers posing, gawkers gawking, drunks drinking, bums bumming and hustlers hustling. Traffic had already congealed into a dense, noisy confused mass of cruising tourist-bearing rickshaws, blatting Harleys, megawatt-booming cruise cars and the pathetic, plaintively honking fools who actually thought they could drive through the Grove on a Saturday night.

It was just getting started. It would go on until dawn, and beyond.

Sitting on the porch of her snug, hurricane-weathered cottage nestled beneath a pair of massive ficus trees not 300 yards away, Marion McAlister Williams listened to the distant din wafting toward her on the South Florida night. She could still hear pretty well, and she could think as well as anybody -- better than most, in fact. Not bad, when you considered that she was 102 years old, had come to Miami on a sailboat when Coconut Grove was a two-family, no-road hamlet, and Seminoles fished the bay.

Not much fish to catch in there now, she thought, bitterly; not much life at all in that poor overused, over-dredged public sewer. Oh, she'd done what she could. She'd written that book, back in the '40s, way ahead of her time; she told the world what the movers and shakers of South Florida were doing to the bay. The book got a lot of attention, won her a couple of big awards. After a while even the movers and shakers noticed, started inviting her to dinners, giving her plaques, calling her a South Florida Treasure, like she was some kind of endangered turtle. Then they'd pat her on her frail, stooped shoulders, send her off home and go right back to screwing up the bay.

From her porch, she could smell the water, close by to the southeast. She wondered, as she often did, what was going on out there, away from the lunacy of the Grove, in the dark.

* * *

A mile or so down the coast, where rich people live in huge, expensive, fashionable, professionally decorated, truly uncomfortable homes, Booger flippered his massive blob of a body slowly through the murky water just offshore. Of course he didn't know he was called Booger by the boat-dwellers in the Grove, where he spent most of his time. Being a manatee, he wasn't big on abstract concepts such as names. He also hadn't figured out, despite several collisions and one painful propeller-inflicted wound, that he should try to avoid motorboats.

And thus, although he could sense it coming, he made no effort whatsoever to avoid the beat-up old outboard-powered skiff racing directly toward him in the dark. And since the two men in the skiff were (a) running without lights, and (b) arguing, they did not notice Booger's bulk dead ahead, almost all of it just below the surface, just like the iceberg that caused all that trouble for the Titanic.

* * *

"This ain't no damn computer, I can tell you that for damn sure," Hector was saying, from the front of the skiff. He was frowning at the wooden crate sitting on a seat cushion and strapped to the seat with a pair of bungee cords. He kicked aside the scummy tow rope at his feet and leaned down to poke around in the straw between the slats of the crate for a clearer glimpse at the plastic-wrapped, roundish object, hard and smooth like some kind of metal, pressing up against the wood.

"How the hell do you know?" asked Phil, from the stern, where he had his hand on the outboard tiller.

"Because it ain't even got a power plug," said Hector. "Computers got power plugs."

"What the hell do you care what it is?" said Phil. "We take it to the rich man's dock, we give it to the rich man, he gives us the other five thou, we're gone. Ten thou, total, five each, minus my boat expenses, easy money. You got a better plan? You maybe wanna rob another UPS truck?"

This was a reference to Hector's last major money-making idea, which was to snatch a box at random from the back of a UPS van parked on Kendall Drive. Unfortunately, Hector, who was also the getaway-car driver, tried to get away a little too fast; he drove directly into a Lexus making a left turn across traffic, causing it to smash into a Jaguar. As it happened -- this was, after all, South Florida -- both the Lexus AND the Jaguar were being driven by well-known, highly successful, politically connected narcotics traffickers, so Hector and Phil got into BIG trouble with the law. They wound up doing 18 months in jail.

The box they had stolen from the UPS truck -- Phil would never let Hector forget this -- turned out to contain dirty undershorts that a University of Miami pre-law student was sending home to his mom for laundering.

"Very funny," said Hector. "Ha ha. But you tell me, why'd the Cuban tell us it's a computer if it ain't? And that wasn't no local Cuban, neither. That was a Cuban Cuban, from Cuba. That was a Cuban navy boat following his boat. It was running with no

lights, trying to stay outta sight, but I saw it."

"Hector, you told me that 53 times, and I still don't care. I don't care if he was from Mars, OK? Ten thou is ten thou."

"I think it's nuclear," said Hector, quietly. He pronounced it "nuke-u-lar," like Walter Cronkite.

"It's WHAT?" asked Phil.

"Nuclear. Like a bomb. The way the Cuban handled it, you know? The way he was, so, like, scared of it. And did you see him open that little door in it, just before he put it in the crate? There was some kind of numbers in there, man."

"Computers got numbers," noted Phil.

"These ain't computer numbers," said Hector. "These are little lights, like glowing numbers."

"Only number I care about," said Phil. "Is $10,000. You can buy a lot of underwear for that."

Hector said a very bad thing to Phil.

* * *

Back in the heart of the Grove, city of Miami rookie police officer Joe Sereno was trying to explain to an extremely large, extremely drunk male tourist that, no matter what the system was back in his home town, the system here in Miami was, if  you had to urinate, you did it in some kind of enclosed toilet facility. You did not do it out in public. You especially did not do it off the second-floor balcony of the CocoWalk complex.

"Sir," Sereno was saying, "why don't you . . . "

"I GOT THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT!" the tourist announced. He virtually never missed The People's Court.

"Sir," said Sereno, "I'm not arresting you. I'm just asking you to zip up your . . ."

"ANYTHING I SAY CAN AND WILL be USED AGAINST ME!!" bellowed the large man. The fast-growing crowd of onlookers cheered. Many were aiming video cameras. This was excellent entertainment, even better than the Hare Krishnas.

Joe Sereno sighed. This was not what he had in mind when he joined the police department. He wanted to make a difference, to do something useful, to fight crime for God's sake, not to spend his nights chaperoning the Block Party from Hell, baby-sitting a bunch of morons who . . .

"I HAVE THE RIGHT TO AN ATTORNEY!!!" the large man screamed. "SOMEBODY GET ME . . . WHAT'S HIS NAME."

"Perry Mason?" suggested a voice from the crowd.

"NO, DAMMIT! THE OTHER ONE!"

"Johnny Cochran?"

"YES!! HIM!! SOMEBODY GET ME JOHNNY COC . . . COC . . . COCCHHUUURRRRGGGGHHH . . . "

Although he was a rookie, Sereno had worked the Grove long enough to see what was coming, and thus stepped back quickly enough to avoid the sudden eruption. Not everyone on the sidewalk below was so lucky. Bedlam erupted as the crowd, screaming,  surged away from the area directly underneath the puking giant. A rickshaw, coming around the corner, was knocked over by the fleeing mob, sending an older couple sprawling into the street, directly into the path of a Harley-Davidson, whose driver turned right sharply in an effort

to avoid them, hit the curb, and was launched across the sidewalk into the fountain.

Sereno sprinted for the stairs, glancing at his watch. Nine o'clock, straight up.

The night was young.

* * *

Another boring night, Fay Leonard thought, as she locked up her dive shop on South Dixie Highway. She was beginning to wonder about the shop. It had seemed like such a good idea -- a chance for her to make a living doing the one thing she truly loved. Problem was, she wasn't doing any diving; she was always running the shop. It ate up her days, and it was starting to eat up her nights. Like, tonight, she had to take two full sets of rental scuba gear over to a charter boat at Dinner Key  Marina, which meant driving into the Grove, which was of course going to be a zoo on a Saturday night.

Lugging the heavy air tanks out to her pickup truck, she thought, all this work, carrying all this gear around, and I don't even get to use it.

* * *

Still sitting on her porch, Marion McAlister Williams sat upright, coming abruptly out of her doze. She glanced around; nothing amiss.

And yet . . . something was wrong. She knew it. Something out in the bay. She knew that bay, knew it better than anybody else, knew things about it she could never explain. And right then, right that second, she knew something was going wrong. Bad wrong.

She clutched her chair and listened to the night, listened hard, but all she heard was the Grove din, and frogs.

But there was something. She knew it.

* * *

Just an inch or two below the bay surface, Booger felt the pressure wave of the approaching skiff. He'd had that feeling before, and he felt vaguely uncomfortable about it, but even if he'd known enough to get out of the way, there wasn't really any time.

* * *

"Tell you one thing," Phil was saying. "If I DID steal somebody's underwear, you can bet it would at least be CLEAN underwear."

That did it. Hector, enraged, rose in the front of the skiff, turned toward Phil, pointed, and shouted, "YOU KNOW WHAT YOU CAN DO, PHIL? YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT YOU CAN DO? YOU CAN . . . "

But Hector never did get to tell Phil what he could do, because at precisely that moment, the skiff rammed into Booger and came to an extremely sudden stop. Hector, however, kept right on going, right off the bow, still pointing vaguely in the direction of Phil, who sprawled, face-first, to the floor of the skiff.

The force of the collision likewise hurled Phil's and Hector's mystery cargo forward, splintering the flimsy fiberglass where the bungee cords were attached to the seat. It slammed against the bow with a crunching sound then launched into the air in an explosion of bilge water and tow rope, then the whole mass splashed into the bay about 30 feet in front of the skiff, the seat cushion floating upside down, and the crushed crate dangling a few feet below from the bungee cords, trailing yards  of tow rope.

Into this mess swam a very alarmed Booger, moving away from the skiff as fast as a manatee can move. His snout passed directly under the floating cushion, so that, as he surged forward, the bungee cords secured the flotsam firmly to his massive body. Booger continued to flipper frantically forward in the gloom, saddled with the awkward weight of the trash.

Booger barely noticed it. His brain -- such as it was -- was focused entirely on one idea: getting out of there, to someplace safe. And being a creature of habit, he knew exactly where he was going.

Like so many others on this particular night, Booger was headed for Coconut Grove.

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