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Chapter 9



The excitement of TV news in the making silenced the room.

     "Professor and General, Channel Eight News has a few questions if you don't mind," Sanch Riquez said.

     The moderator took this as an invitation to get out of the way. The General, obviously no stranger to TV, presented his proud face to the camera. And Prof. Pratt acknowledged the TV journalist with a nod of the head and said, "Shoot!"

     "We are shooting already," Sanch Riquez said without missing a beat. Then he made a quarter turn towards the audience and camera, waiting out their laughter and Pratt's embarrassed reaction, thus creating several seconds of useful lead-in footage that he could voice over back at the studio.

     It would be a good profile shot of his big head with his black, wavy but square-cut hair framing his big forehead. His broad jaw was set defiantly.

     "Now, Professor Pratt, we have both heard General Sosa-Pereira speak very eloquently about the development of a million square miles of Brazilian land and what I hear you saying is that it should be saved for the Indians, even though they are only a small part of the population of Brazil. Can you tell the Channel Eight viewers why you think it is important to reserve all that land for the Indians?"

     I had to admit that he was good at what he did. It was a "hard-hitting" question delivered in a throaty voice and without a trace of Spanish accent, unless you count a slight lengthening of the "long O's" in "Professor" and "even though."

     "Regarding the Yanomama Indians, I believe they are the natural custodians of their region of the Brazilian rain forest until more capable custodians emerge." Pratt clipped it off there. I guess she knew all about sound bites.

     Sanch Riquez said, "When Columbus came to the Caribbean Islands, he brought in Spanish culture. And back then nobody was talking about saving it for a bunch of ignorant people living in the stone age. Wouldn't you agree that it is bad enough for history to have one ignorant peasant running an important part of Latin America now?" His derogatory reference to Fidel Castro brought several derisive whistles and some applause.

     Yes, I could imagine Sanch scoring a lot of points with his viewers, tonight -- middle-class Cuban-Americans whose parents had lost their shops to Castro -- and Old Florida individualists who are quick to shun any form of "political correctness" prescribed by university professors.

     Pratt flushed pink. And she was so flustered that she overlooked the anti-Castro angle.

     "The peasants, as you call them, are not as ignorant as you think. European people received a lot of useful knowledge and inventions from the Indians. Medicine, like curare. And agricultural inventions like yams and corn."

     Riquez ignored this.

     "The General has also talked about the burden of educating the Indians and the other poor people living in the Amazon. But listening to your presentation, it sounded like you think they have enough education already." He had now fallen into Spanish rhythm but was still forming his sounds from the back of his mouth, with a lot of echo.

     Dr. Pratt was regaining her composure and was now staring at Riquez like a worthy adversary. "When industrialized society makes contact with a hunting and gathering society, it usually crushes it under deadening pressure. But if industrialized society thinks it is smarter, then it should be able to find ways to make contact without destroying the indigenous society. I think that with proper introduction and education, it should be possible for the hunting and gathering society to skip the industrialization phase and go directly to a technological and intrinsically integrated society which may be superior to ours."

     The hall fell silent, probably out of embarrassment for Prof. Pratt's overblown and clearly impossible statement. How the hell did she think that hunters and gatherers could skip over the Industrial Revolution and come out more advanced than the rest of us?

     Baldie was sitting on the edge of his chair like he wanted to jump up and turn off the camera.

     Sanch Riquez shook his head. "I am sorry, Professor, but are you saying that they are going to get an education by sitting in their thatch huts watching satellite television?"

     "Not if they choose to watch your Channel Eight, which offers nothing better than teenage comedy and newscasts of the latest shooting in Hialeah."

     Wow, did Edith Pratt score a big laugh with that one! And I laughed along, too. But she spoiled it by continuing with a strident recitation of the educational television programs that did have value. And she didn't pay the least bit of attention to the moderator when he returned to the table to announce that the session was over. In fact, she kept on answering Riquez even after he turned his back and dismissed the camera crew. What an attitude! She seemed to hold an irrefutable belief that only she was serving a higher purpose -- a purpose so lofty that she didn't have to justify it to the rest of us.

     As the hall emptied, a handful of admirers clustered around her. I debated about going up and trying to give her one of Rebecca's cards. But the decision was made for me when Baldie stepped in again to manage her. So I followed the crowd out of the auditorium, across the atrium and into the hotel lobby which was jammed because it was raining hard outside.

     I worked my way to the circular motor entrance and watched the storm from under the tall canvas awning. The clouds were black and low, and the wind drove curtains of rain towards us at a 45-degree angle, soaking a black limo and a black BMW that were parked in the "valet only" zone by the edge of the overhang. Yes, a motor entrance is not a motor entrance unless it is jammed with expensive cars and valets to admire them. But the valets were shivering in their shorts and the hotel guests were more interested in finding a yellow taxicab than admiring jet black automotive grace. And the two cars weren't that easy to see anyway because the recessed lights in the overhang failed to turn on.

     With a half-dozen people, I hung around watching the wind blow the rain. I occupied several minutes with speculation on two things: Who was paying these several Little Havana high school dropout types to stand here with their "No Castro, No Problem" placards? And why were those two nuts in the Beemer sitting there with the front passenger-side window open and with the motor running? They were Latin types and were dressed like playboys. Did they think we were going to admire them through the open window?

     My question about the placards was answered when Sanch Riquez' crew came out, with the camera shouldered and its lights powered up. Edith Pratt was coming out, too. Maybe now was the time to approach her. I found Rebecca's card and walked toward the automatic glass doors just as Pratt walked through them. She had a couple of female admirers in tow, with Baldie bringing up the rear. While walking up to her, I noticed a red flash from the Beemer. Probably from a gimmicky cellphone.

     "Dr. Pratt, I enjoyed your presentation and just wanted to introduce myself and -- "

     I stopped talking, distracted by a red flash in her red hair. And my heart stopped when a small red dot jumped onto her forehead and danced there, shimmering like a back-lit ruby -- like a spot from a laser! It must have been a reflex. I couldn't have thought that fast. I swung my briefcase high to catch the dot. An instant later, my briefcase jerked back as if pulled by a magnet. It hit her in the face. But the swish and the thud told me it was not magnetism at work. And my legs followed as I threw myself into Pratt, trying to push her back into the crowd and bracing myself for what was to come.

     But a second bullet did not come as we tumbled on the wet sandstone. Instead, I heard a squeal of tires and shouted protests of the people around us. The Channel Eight spotlights followed us down. And before I could turn in the Beemer's direction, it was gone.

     "Stop that car! It -- ."

     But I never got to finish the sentence. A heavy guy threw himself down on me. He knocked the wind out of me. Another guy twisted my arm behind my back. "Don't resist and you won't get hurt," the arm-twister said.

     "They fired at her," I gasped. "With a silencer. With a laser sight."

     But nobody was listening to me. They were all listening to Edith Pratt who was screaming that I was crazy, that her back was hurt and could someone help her up. With my face pressed to the pavement, I was kept busy finagling my next breath.

     The black leather, round-toed, rubber-soled shoes walking up to my face identified the guy faster than his first words. "Hotel Security. We're taking you into custody."

     "No. I'm a Good Samaritan. Those BMW guys shot at her and I stopped the bullet . . . with my briefcase."

     He grabbed one of my arms and I heard a click. "Sure, and we'll -- ."

     "If you handcuff me in front of this crowd, I'll have my lawyer sue you for ten thousand dollars." It was hard to argue with my face to the ground. "And get that damn TV camera off of me."

     "Camera off!" The voice issuing the command sounded a lot older. I got a better look at him when they lifted me to my feet. He had the same type of shoes and he wore a fire-engine-red blazer over loosely knit black slacks. The camera lights went off. He walked up to me. "Come with me."

     "Yes, I'll go with you. I'll go with you to where we can talk. I'll go when you get that cuff off of me. I'll go under my own steam. And if you so much as touch me, I'll sue you for assault and slander and --"

     "Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah! Take if off, Joe."

     Joe released the cuff but didn't let go of my left arm. I didn't give him a glance. I kept focused on the guy in charge. "I'm Dr. Benjamin Candidi. I want back my briefcase. It is evidence of the shooting."

     "Get it, Joe."

     Joe released me. So did the guys who had jumped on me and held me down. One was a doorman. I brushed myself off. Edith Pratt had her sights fixed on me. She was half sitting with an admirer propping up her back. "You insolent young hothead, you!"

     "I just saved your life. They fired at you with a gun with a silencer and laser sight. My briefcase stopped the bullet." She just sat there sputtering. I yelled out to the crowd. "I want the police here. And if any one of you saw the two guys in that black BMW or got its license number, identify yourself to these redcoats. The police will take your formal statements when they come."

     Funny, how my words were having just the opposite effect on people -- making them creep away. Joe came back with my briefcase and handed it to me. He wore a red jacket and a law enforcement style moustache. My briefcase was punctured and scuffed. The paunch-faced older redcoat collected me up with tired eyes and indicated that I should follow him into the hotel. I walked with him, past the long wood-paneled reception desk, past the atrium restaurant and through an unmarked door which led to a large room filled with monitors . . .



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