"You go on, my head is killing me. I'm going back to the room. I think I have heat stroke," I told Julie. What I had was a dull ache in my bones, exactly like the first stages of the flu, but I wasn't about to tell her that. It had taken weeks of badgering to get her to agree to come to Florida in the first place. I decided to order a large glass of orange juice from room service as soon as I got back.
"I think you shouldn't have drunk those rum drinks without eating something, that's what I think." Sanctimonious little….Oh, she was right, so I clamped down my teeth. Maybe we had a little too much fun at that beach party last night.
"Yeah, and who's been running to the bathroom every half hour since you bought that 'meat on a stick' thing?" A weak retort as my own stomach heaved. Her first impulse buy from a fake Jamaican vendor had been a mistake.
"They're called pirogues, or something like that. And I'm fine since I took some Ipecac. Why don't you take something for your head and come shopping with me?"
"I thought a pirogue was a canoe. No thanks, I'm going to lay down for a while. Come by the room and pick me up before you go back to the club." I was really feeling bad by now.
"OK, see you later, Sue." Julie wandered off into the market, clutching her woven grass souvenir bag.
I called out before she disappeared, "Hey, could you buy me some bandages and disinfectant for my finger, while you're out?" If this flu wasn't enough, the guide on the boat tour's pet bird decided my finger resembled a grape, and had took a bite out of it. Some great vacation, so far.
My head was actually throbbing by the time I got back to the room, so I decided to take a hot bath, to see if that helped. I pulled off my bikini bottom and T-shirt, wincing as the fabric pulled against the sunburn on my breasts (they hadn't see the sun back home in Des Moines since Labor Day, and were an early casualty of the trip). I poured a little bath softener (with Aloe, the miracle herbal medicine!) into the tub and eased myself into it. The warm water took the weight off my aching limbs; and seemed to clear my head. Laying back, I closed my eyes and finally achieved an uneasy sleep.
I awoke to an awareness that I was floating free in the free in the water, one foot just touching the side of the tub. I jerked upright, thinking I had left the water running and overfilled it. I relaxed when I saw the faucet was off. Then panicked again, as I realized I was standing in waist deep water, water that was only half-way to the edge of the tub. An edge that was above eye level.
I lurched to that edge, scrabbling on feet that could get no traction on the slippery porcelain. About to fall, I threw an arm over the rim. An arm that was entirely covered with blue and yellow feathers. One that was now clearly a wing. Breathing hard, I looked down at my body. A parrot! Definitely a blue and yellow parrot. Scaly clawed feet, feathers, beak, the whole thing. A wet, waterlogged, drowned-looking parrot.
I scrambled ineffectually against the side of the tub, unable to get enough traction to climb, and too heavy to jump out. Finally I used my beak and claws to climb the shower curtain, perforating it. I hopped down to the bathroom floor, then stood unsteadily and shook off as much water as I could. The softener removed all the oil from my feathers, and they remained damp and limp. I was starting to feel a chill, in spite of the room temperature in the seventies. I waddled across the motel room, climbed onto the bed using the edge of the blanket, and burrowed part-way under the covers.
What to do? People don't just become large birds. I had no id no idea how it happened, though I suspected the bird bite. I could use the phone to call the front desk, or the police, but what would I tell them? Could I even talk? I essayed a few sounds. I could make some of those gargling noised had heard parrots make before, but nothing coherent. I could almost understand the sound of my voice if I just breathed gently, but my vocalization when I tried for more volume seemed completely random. So 911 was out. I just hoped I could communicate who I was to Julie when she returned. I was working on how to open the drawer on the writing table, when I heard the door open.
"Room Service." An accented male voice called out. Silence for a minute, then the door opened. Two men entered the room, closing the door behind them. I froze. One went directly into the entryway closet where our bags were stacked, while the other headed toward the table, grabbing my purse and camera. He spotted me in that instant, and laughed in amusement. He said something to his partner in a mix of Spanish and English.
"Esta una (indistinguishable) (Expletive) bird!"
"No, (indecipherable). (Expletive, in English)!" His partner answered, shushing him to silence. I backed across the bed. They had a quick, whispered conference, then tried to capture me. I was still too wet to fly, and after being chased around the room briefly, I was caught in the bed spread. One of them wrappewrapped me in a towel and stuffed me into a pillow case. Our airline tickets and other valuables went into the other case, and both were dumped into a laundry cart.
I was at least warm and dry in the towel. I had a sensation of movement, and later, the sound of a car engine. After riding in what could only be the trunk for hours, I was in darkness until I was slid out of the upended pillow case. The towel was unwrapped enough to uncover my head, and I looked around, glaring.
The room was dimly lit, with only a gooseneck lamp pooling light on the desk blotter on which I now lay. Wire cages covered the walls of the room, not filled with birds, as I feared, but instead with cameras, stereos, and similar portable consumer electronics. Three men were talking, invisible outside the circle lit by the lamp. I recognized the voice of one of my captors.
"So what you think?" His English, if not his grammar, was apparently better than their earlier conversation had led me to expect.
"I don't do birds. Turn it loose." An older man, Anglo.
"I looked at a store, man, on the drive up here." The other partner. "These birds sell for like five thousand."
"It's worth $8.95 in a bucket at the Colonel's. I'll give two hundred 'cause I like you."
They bickered over the price of me and my camera, but eventually the whole pacally the whole package went for five hundred, cash. The two thieves left. My new owner, their fence, obviously, rummaged around in the dark, before eventually coming back with a cage, into which I was inserted. It was much too small, with barely enough room to stand. He put some water in a shot glass on the bottom, and threw my towel over the outside. Turning off the lamp, he said, "Goodnight, Polly," and left. The room was dark and still, and I had nothing better to do than go back to sleep.
I spent a month at what I gradually learned was Mr. Conlin's (Where prices are a steal!) pawn and check cashing shop, somewhere on the south side of Miami. That next morning, he found a perch for me in a room-size wire mesh cage I shared with his teller. She was a short Cuban woman who hated me, and tolerated my presence only because the boss insisted. Mr. Conlin would bring me fruit slices and grapes, and tried to get me to talk. I found I was not t a very well trained parrot. I tried hard, but was not having any success. I had progressed to distinctly bird-sounding whistles, and felt that I would eventually be able to imitate a cat or dog, too. At night, I would practice writing with a stub of pencil, carefully disposing of my paper scraps each morning. My feet lacked sufficient dexterity, and it was slow going with my beak. By the end of the month, I could write about two words a minute.
The teller hated me, but then she hated everyone, with one exception. Every week, a young, well dressed man would come to the cage with a gym bag full of payroll checks, which he would cash. After exchanging pleasantries and casually flirting with the teller, the courier would leave the store with several tens of thousands of dollars in cash in his bag. In contrast with her usual complaints about what a filthy bird I was, she boasted to him about me. On one particular day, I was practicing barking like a dog for my own entertainment, while they worked at the counter. He stood and watched me for ten minutes. The upshot of this was, that evening at closing time he returned, and I had a new owner. Not the young man, but his boss.
My exposure to television detective shows helped me realize exactly what business he was in. An up-and-coming member of organized crime, Jamie was in the wholesale end of the drug business at this point in his life. What he did did was make things flow smoothly. This involved a lot of phone conversations, and many parties with various diverse guests. He was fluent in English, Spanish and an Indian dialect I still cannot recognize, and did business in all three. I shamelessly eavesdropped on any of the conversations I could understand. Some of this had to be a way out.
A parrot made an ideal decoration, just like his trophy wife, Lora, a beautiful girl imported illegally from Jamie's parents' hometown in Colombia. Their house was spacious with an open floor plan, and I had a perch in the solarium adjoining his den/office. And, for the first time, I had enough room to stretch my wings and fly. Or, rather, try to fly. Whenever I had the room to myself, I would practice. I could glide well enough from a high point, but whenever I flapped my wings, I over-balanced and flipped. Turning seemed hopeless. I walked across a few rooms, and climbed a lot of furniture and drapes. At that point, I remembered the old line 'flying can't be too hard, if baby birds could learn to do it.' Faagh!
Lora loved me. She had wanted a bird since she was a small child, and now she had the time and leisure to train one. Using small snacks and making encouraging noises and gestures, she tried to teach me tricks and to speak. She spoke little English, so I was forced to learn Spanish. I mostly just listened to the sounds the syllables made in her her throat, and vibrated my (whatever it is birds have) in the same key. It was like learning to speak again after recovering from an operation. Eventually, I could speak clearly, albeit in the liquid flowing, definitely bird-like cadence. I did my Spanish renditions of "Pretty bird" and "Polly want a cracker" and the like for Lora, but kept my identity to myself. I sang a little English to keep in practice, letting them assume I picked it up from the radio.
Until this point, I assumed that once I learned to talk again, I could explain my problem, and get help. I could see no such opportunity here. I dared not reveal my identity to any of Jamie's associates. Enough had already been said in my presence to insure somebody would swiftly wring my neck. Neither could I escape the house. While parrots can survive in the wild, even in Florida, I knew my existence outside would be constant hazard, and probably short. I would need much more practice to escape a cat or hawk.
I began to see parallels with Lora's situation. While she was not mistreated, or in any way restrained, she was just as confined to the house as I was. She knew too much, not only about what her husband did, but about her fate if he was caught. She knew the best she could expect was to be returned to the slums from which her family had emerged. Still, she optimistically hoped for a better, respectable life. She talked to me constantly tly while she sat in the solarium, mostly in Spanish (my two semesters from high school were getting an immersion upgrade), but enough in English to understand her. We were friends, after an owner-pet sort of fashion.
Some nights, when Jaime took Lora out on the town, the staff came into the den to watch the big screen TV. They were a fun bunch, and I liked to tease them.
"Perro, get in here! Esta 'Miami Vice'!"
"Yo, man, lookat that chick!"
"Hey, bird! Get off that rabbit ears! You spoilin' tha show."
"I'm gonna shoot that bird!"
"Better not, the boss's old lady cut you if you do!"
And she might. I looked forward to her feeding me snacks, scratching my feathers, just hearing someone talk to me, rather than past me. After I mastered speaking, it was hard not to answer her rhetorical questions. I learned and performed tricks to keep her entertained, just so that she would talk to me. She directed the household staff to treat me well, and one day, when I was not feeling well, had a veterinarian brought in. That is when I learned I was really a macaw. This trivial fact somehow made a difference to me. When I was alone in the house that night, I pulled the dictionary off the shelf and read the description. Most intelligent of the birds. If only they knew. Acting with that intelligence, I remembered to put the book back in the same spot on the shelf. on the shelf. That's when I discovered something interesting.
Behind the encyclopedias was a miniature video camera, the lens concealed in a fake electrical outlet. Again, as a child of television, I knew what this meant. Searching the room, I found another, and several of what I was sure were microphones. It seemed that somebody else was eavesdropping on the Ruis-Blanco household, hopefully the police. I decided that it was time to leave. I spent the rest of the night making my plan and that Friday, I made my move.
It was one of Jaime's business parties, full of people I sure hoped were guilty of something, considering what I was about to do to them. As the guests wandered around the room, I hopped from plant to lamp to chair, making my way by stages to the desk, stopping to accept an occasional snack or rub. I had previously discovered a pistol Jamie had taped to the underside of the center drawer. Checking one last time there was no one was in front of the desk, I stretched up from the floor and squeezed the trigger with my beak A shot rang out, and the pistol flew backwards, painfully. Several women screamed, but I was already in motion. I launched myself across the room in a flurry of flapping wings and smacked into the light switch, plunging the room into darkness. Jaime yelled for everyone to get down, and I screamed myself, then yelled in my deepest voice:
"You shot my wife! I'll get you!" you!" Praying the surveillance was live and not just being taped for later, I dove behind the couch to wait for a response.
Jaime kept his cool and nobody else got shot by accident. The gun was found as soon as the lights came back on. But by that time, it was too late. Within fifteen minutes, the party was crashed by federal and local police in flak vests. I think the surveillance team was embarrassed when they burst in and there was no body. Once I was sure there were no unsecured criminals, I stood on the back of the couch and sang like a bird, so to speak: identifying by name those members of the crowd who were in the business. By sunrise, I was evidence.
For the first few hours, the police thought I was only dumbly "parroting" things I had heard. I gave the names of his associates, ships, dates and flight numbers. Everything I could remember. An agent dutifully copied everything down, saying things like "speakpeak" and "good bird." I just wasn't getting my point across. Finally I walked up to him across his desk and said,
"Look. Ask me what you want to know, and I'll try to answer you. I'm tired of guessing." He had been awake all night too, and it took a few seconds to realized what I had just said.
"Say that again."
"Give me a drink of water, first."
"Boss, this bird talks!" His supervisor looked up from the stack of seized documents he was cataloguing.
"It's a parrot, of course it talks."
"I'm a macaw, Dammit! I want some water. Hell, I want a lawyer."
I didn't get to see that lawyer. In fact, I never even testified in the Ruis-Blanco ring's prosecution. Instead, shortly after that supervisor mentioned me to his boss, the Miami Interagency Drug Task Force was visited by two anonymous federal agents who put me in a soundproofed box and took me away to this secret government laboratory. Lora was deported to Colombia, where I hope she got another bird to replace me.
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