THE RAPPER AND HIS GIRLFRIEND, Janiqua, stood in the sunny corral, paging through the color brochure, selecting the animal they wanted to kill.
With the Remington twelve-gauge tipped against her shoulder, Claire Hammond drifted away, letting her husband, Browning, walk the couple through their choices. She waited in the shade of a cabbage palm, listening to him work his sales pitch, pointing out the Manchurian sika deer, the blackbuck antelope, the wildebeest, the eland, and the rest, describing which might be most challenging to stalk, which horns or heads would make the most impressive mount on the rap star’s living room wall.
An hour earlier, DirtyX and Janiqua had arrived without reservations at the front gate of Coquina Ranch on a day Browning was scheduled to go down to Miami for business. So the way it was shaping up, once these two made their choice, it would fall to Claire to supervise the hunt.
After another minute of conversation, Browning broke away from the couple and came over. He put his arm around Claire’s shoulders and steered her to a wedge of shade near the far side of the barn.
"Ten thousand bucks," he said quietly. "How could I say no?"
"Ten thousand?" It was five times their daily rate.
"I took one look at the limo, the way he was dressed, I said ten grand. The guy didn’t flinch. He’s doing a concert tomorrow in Miami, wants to bag something big to impress his homies back in L.A."
"What am I supposed to call him? Mr. Dirty?"
"Come on, Claire. Ten thousand bucks. Be cool."
Thirty yards away, over at the lodge, Earl Hammond, Browning’s grandfather, stepped outside into the sun, paused for a moment on the deck to stare across the corral at the would-be hunters. From that distance Claire couldn’t read his expression, but his disgust was unmistakable as he turned sharply and slipped back inside the lodge and shut the door.
The rapper wore a magenta jumpsuit, a bright yellow pirate scarf wrapping his skull, and big white shades like early Elton John. Janiqua had on a tight green dress that shimmered in the October sunlight. Scooped low in front, barely restraining her breasts. Not exactly regulation hunting outfits. Normally their customers, beer-drinking good ol’ boys with their cheeks full of chaw, favored fatigues and camouflage.
Earl Hammond didn’t much care for those fellows, either. He’d never approved of the whole hunting preserve venture. Thought it was cheesy and disreputable. A violation of the time-honored traditions the ranch stood for through the generations of Hammonds. But Earl didn’t have the heart to deny his grandson anything, so he silently endured this desecration.
"Look, Claire, I have to get going. I’m late as it is. If you don’t want to do it, say so. I’ll send them away. But you know we could use the money."
"I’ll do it," she said.
"Thanks, babe, I owe you one." He kissed her cheek, then stood back and gave her the hangdog grin he’d charmed her with in their college-sweetheart days. Though lately its magic had been waning.
Claire climbed into the back of the open Jeep, settled the Remington on her lap. Browning strolled back to DirtyX and Janiqua to close the deal.
"Cute couple," Jonah Faust said.
Behind the steering wheel, Jonah sat erect, giving Claire a grin in the rear view mirror as if they were in on the joke together. Jonah had a shaved head, a sneaky manner, and a bleak glitter in his eyes. She’d never liked him, felt a creepy vibe, and didn’t understand what Browning saw in him and his brother, Moses. A couple of moochers, as far as Claire was concerned. They bunked in the primitive cabin on the game preserve and guided hunting parties now and then, did a few odd jobs around the ranch, but mainly they loafed. Old college buds of Browning’s still hanging out six years after graduation.
It was a warm morning, cloudless with just enough breeze to stir the tops of the live oaks, the pines and sabal palms, and riffle the tall grass beyond the corral. In the barn the horses were nickering as Gustavo Pinto mucked their stalls. From a stand of palmetto near the lodge came the tetchy call of a scrub jay, and filtering through the yellowed light was the scent of brittle grass blowing in from the sun-baked rangeland. Early October in central Florida felt a lot like midsummer anywhere else.
Across the corral, DirtyX raised his hand and gave Browning a jive-ass, three-part handshake, then came strutting over to the Jeep, his girlfriend tagging behind, plugged into her iPod. Browning waved good-bye to Claire and headed for his car.
The rapper was a skinny man, short, with dreadlocks, unimpressive till he got close, removed his shades, and gave Claire a look at his fierce glare. Then, yeah, she could picture him up on stage, swaggering and chanting for an arena full of screamers. The harsh brown eyes of a man whose secrets outmatched anyone he met.
"I didn’t see no rhinos or elephants in your pamphlet," he said to Claire.
"We don’t have any of those."
"Your husband says to ask you what’s the biggest baddest monster you got? I’m after something nasty, with fangs and shit."
Right there, Claire was ready to cancel things. Climb out of the Jeep, march back to the lodge, get busy with her chores. Screw the ten thousand. They didn’t need the money. Not this bad. Browning would be pissed, but he’d get over it.
"Baddest thing on the ranch is the Watusi bull," Jonah said.
"Biggest horns you ever saw," said Jonah. "Eight feet tip to tip. Fucker gores you, you stay gored."
"Don’t be scaring my little boy," Janiqua said.
"Ain’t nobody scaring me." DirtyX gave his girl a snarly look. "They ain’t nobody been born could scare me."
Jonah Faust glanced in the rear view mirror again, sent Claire a wink.
"Not the Watusi," Claire said. "We’re not hunting that one."
"It’s old and slow. There’s nothing sporting in going after Immambo."
Janiqua plucked one ear bud out.
"The thing has a name?" she said. "Like what, it’s a family pet?"
DirtyX leafed through the brochure until he found the photo of the Watusi bull. He tapped the page with his skinny finger, held up the picture.
"I want this fucker," DirtyX said. "That’s what we’re going for."
"Then it’s twenty thousand dollars, nothing less," Claire said. She was pissed, just wanted to spin this guy around and kick him back where he came from.
"Boss man said ten for anything on the preserve."
"Okay, forget the whole deal. I don’t negotiate. Case closed."
Claire started to climb from the Jeep, but the rapper said, "Okay, twenty."
Then he settled his butt in the passenger seat and that was that.
"Twenty K is lunch money," he said to Jonah. "Lock and load, bitches. Let’s go whack this beast."
"Last I saw," Jonah said, "the Watusi was in Crook’s Meadow."
"Big-ass horns, right?" Man to man, leaving the women out.
"Eight feet tip to tip," Jonah said.
"That’s what I’m talking about."
Claire settled back in her seat.
Last month the vet from Miami had visited to check on Immambo. The bull had been stumbling around, lethargic. After running tests he’d determined it was nothing infectious, nothing that might spread to the other animals. Just a failing heart. The time had come to put the old boy down. Jonah knew the story. Probably thought it was a big goof, suggesting the Watusi. Taking the man’s money for doing what they had to do anyway.
It took almost an hour to travel from the lodge to the game preserve, crossing a hun