Driving into Chicago at five o'clock on a Wednesday is like entering a circle in hell--possibly one sandwiched between the Pit of a Hundred Thousand Root Canals and the Fiery Baths of Microwaved Cheese. It was a crisp blue June afternoon, and there the Lincoln and I were stuck in hell's Canyon of Interminable Cross Merges. New York is no treat at that time of day, either, but it's merely a stroll through bunny-soft purgatory by comparison, believe you me.
My course was set to see a bear. A Chicago Bear, to be precise. Sprunty G. Fulmore was a running back in the midst of a gazillion-dollar contract with the venerable ursine NFL franchise. He could also afford to be a big-game trophy hunter in the off-season. It's an expensive undertaking to bag the sport's most coveted trophies, especially Africa's big five: lion, leopard, elephant, cape buffalo, and rhinoceros. It requires special permits, top guides at top lodges, prep and export fees, and a whole gamut of red tape that only the rich can untangle with a few snips from cash's giant green scissors. But the expenses don't stop there--it's also none too cheap to have an elephant's head mounted. And, of course, you have to have the kind of palatial abode with space enough to hang one of those suckers and not make it look like it's crashing through the wall.
But the inventory of Mr. Fulmore's trophies that I carried in my briefcase included a lot more than those five animals. He had an appallingly large collection of dead stuff for a man in his early thirties.
Yes, Garth Carson carrying a briefcase. My taxidermy rental days weren't entirely behind me, but I'd more or less handed over the day-to-day reins of the operation to my Russian assistant, Otto. To anybody who knows the little goofball, that may have seemed a rash move on my part, but despite his goofiness Otto's not dumb and he knows my stock of taxidermy intimately. He took the promotion quite solemnly, too, and started wearing one of his boxy, belted Soviet-era suits to the apartment every day.
So Carson's Critters had become a sideline for me. My new job involved appraising taxidermy collections for Wilberforce/Peete, a large specialty insurance company that caters to everything from the rich and famous's taste for collecting dead animals to aerospace company missile projects. How did I land this peachy gig? For once, my brother, Nicholas, had brought sunshine to my life rather than forbidding black clouds. He's an insurance investigator and had used his connections to hook me up. Before the insurance work, with my taxidermy rental business, I'd been more or less just holding my own, my nose pressed against the glass ceiling. I'd no idea insurance companies needed people with my expertise. Or how well they paid. Because of this surge in profits, Angie and I now owned our apartment. At forty-six, my midlife-crisis days were well behind me. Every time I looked at that briefcase, a big smile spread across my face.
My Danger Days were behind me, too. There had been a period when I just couldn't seem to stay out of trouble--with the criminal element or with the law. It had been two blissful years since anybody had tried to kill me. And by the looks of things, I was free and clear.
Okay, so maybe not so free and clear, since I was now fighting my way across six lanes of the Indy 500 trying to make the Wacker Drive exit. But I'm a New Yorker. I simply bullied my way across the interstate, leaned on my horn, and cut everybody off. Tires screeched and legions of irate Chicagoans flipped me the bird, their lips pantomiming expletives. The scariest part was that a disproportionate number of them actually looked like their patron saint, Mike Ditka.
I'd never been to Chicago before. Downtown seemed much like parts of midtown Manhattan but with more named instead of numbered streets. It's just that there was a river cutting through part of the city, and I had a little trouble getting across it to my hotel. Soon enough, though, I was in the semicircular driveway of the glass monolith, a posse of valet parking guys eyeing my car with the thinly disguised trepidation of cowpokes approaching a fiery bull. I was used to this. To these twenty-five-year-old kids, my black '66 Lincoln convertible, with its giant steering wheel, knobs, and tranny hump, was an alien, unpredictable thing. Other than some SUVs, cars haven't been made this heavy or this long since way before these hombres were born.
As the bellhops unloaded my gear from the trunk, I eyed the oldest valet. "You ever drive a vintage ride like this?"
He paused, and did so too long.
The youngest of the bunch piped up.
"My gramps has a '72 El Dorado. Drove it to Vegas last summer. She made wide turns, you know?"
"Circle gets the square." I tossed him the keys.
"Dope!" He smiled. "Circle gets the what?"
"Forget it." I tucked a twenty in his shirt pocket as he moved toward the driver's seat. "Car has a
new paint job, so be nice to her."
I followed the bellhops into the shiny building, did all that check-in stuff, and by 7:00 p.m. I was lying on the bed in my shiny room. Then the phone rang.
"This Carson?" a man's voice asked.
"Yes. Is this Mr. Fulmore?"
"Yeah, that's me. Car'll pick you up in an hour. Howzat?"
"That's cool. I'll leave the front door open. See you in a few."
I'll be the first to admit that I have a prejudiced perspective on big game hunters because my work seems to bring me eyeball to eyeball with the worst of them. But a lot has changed since mid century, back when trophy hunting was done without conscience or forethought. True sportsmen today are equal part conservationist, promoting sustainable-use programs and contributing to international efforts to keep the populations of game animals healthy enough so that they can continue to kill them. I know, it sounds counterproductive, but I guess it's the Omelet Theory in action, and they're breaking a few eggs. Argue that it would be better to hatch the eggs if you must, but there's no denying that these big game hunters channel a lot of money, effort, and influence toward conservation efforts that otherwise wouldn't be there. For example, the biggest, oldest, and most venerable award in trophy hunting used to be called the Oglevy Cup and was awarded to the hunter with the most spectacular kill. Today, that same award is called the Oglevy Conservation Award and is given to the hunter who has contributed the most toward improving the sport--i.e., keeping the animals around. Hats off to the nature lovers who do their bit, but the
luminaries of big game hunting do their bit and then some.
For obvious reasons, most of the big game hunters I visited were eager to try to grease my wheels. They wanted the highest appraisal possible, if not for insurance reasons, then for bragging rights. If they ever got into a pissing contest with other hunters, even if they didn't have a saber-toothed wombat or hoary tree kangaroo among their trophies, they could always pull the trump card by announcing how much their collection was worth. Sad, really. True collectors such as myself tend not to be competitive on that scale--we're more apt to be kindred spirits, appreciating the sensibilities evidenced in someone else's collection. Taxidermy is art. But with hunters, their "trophies" were exactly that: a show of prowess.
My motto? Don't let other people make their problems yours. If these guys wanted to smoke cigars, drink sixty-year-old scotch, and lock horns over whose dead animals were bigger, better, or more valuable, let them have at it. Besides, it benefited me. Whenever I visited these big game hunters, they wined and dined me, sent cars, and lavished me with Cuban cigars I didn't smoke--it was only the gold watches and home entertainment systems that Wilberforce/Peete forbade me to accept. And of course, these erstwhile Hemingways, knowing I was exposed to some of the finest trophy collections in the country, wanted me to be their magic mirror and tell them theirs was the finest in all the land.
An hour after Fulmore's call, I was in a limo headed for an upper crust Chicago suburb. And I couldn't help but reflect, once again, how dramatically my life had changed in a year. Nothing highlights the notion that you're no longer treading water more than having the captain send out his launch for you. Pipe me aboard! I was liking this new life. A lot.
Once off the highway, we cruised through a Tudor-style retail strip and into a lane canopied by the thick branches of towering sycamores. Portico lights twinkled through the hedgerows.
It was trash night in Upper Crust, Illinois. You know you're in a schmancy neighborhood when all the houses have matching trash cans--the clean, green PVC kind with rubber wheels, whisper-quiet hinged lids, and no house numbers spray painted on the sides. I'd bet the garbage trucks were electric and the sanitation workers wore matching white jumpsuits and ballet slippers so as not to wake anybody. Like the tooth fairy, the rubbish fairies fluttered in and out without so much as causing a head to lift from its pillow.
The chauffeur slowed as we approached a drive with a white lawn jockey next to it. For the uninitiated, a drive is distinguished from a driveway by the semicircular, dual-entrance design that obviates having to use reverse gear. When you think about it, the less you have to use reverse gear the richer that means you are. Anyplace you shop has valet parking. You just pull straight up to the entrance and somebody else parks and retrieves your car. You don't have to park in the regular parking spaces at the Foodco because you no longer food shop--your staff does. If you have a garage, somebody brings the car "around for you." And eventually, you just stop driving all together--why even risk having to use reverse in an emergency? All that bothersome neck and head twisting. That's what you pay a personal trainer for, after all.
Passing a sea of green stuff--it was way too neatly trimmed and uniform to be grass--the limo approached a Georgian facade: red brick, white-pillared portico, ivy, dormers. I had to remind myself I wasn't dropping in on a bank president, but a running back named Sprunty who probably favored wild pool parties awash in cheerleaders and controlled substances. I could only imagine the fuss his neighbors had made when he'd signed the deed to this mansion. But that was their problem. Not mine.
The limo rolled to a stop and the driver killed the engine. This wasn't like calling a town car in New York. Here, a limo would wait, no matter how long. And instead of some surly Balkan malcontent sharing his highly original views on impromptu capital punishment to the accompaniment of a radio blaring balalaika disco, my driver hadn't said a word the whole trip. If he was Bosnian or Croatian, I had no idea. He could have been Hutu or Tutsi. I didn't notice.
My briefcase and I stepped out of the limo, and from the portico's vantage I surveyed the sea of green. Fireflies looped and blinked their way through the vapor looking for their mates. Toads chirped. Crickets cheeped. As somnolent a June evening as ever there was.
I turned to the door, which was about six feet wide. When Sprunty had said on the phone that he'd leave the door open, I'd thought he meant unlocked. But it was open open.
"Mr. Fulmore?" My voice bounced up and around the soaring entryway like a SuperBall. An Escheresque staircase stood directly ahead, so long it should have been an escalator. "Hello?"
No butler or housekeeper in evidence. I stepped into the foyer. "Hello?"
On my right was a living room, all in white, with lots of plants and nothing on the walls. To my left was an open door that led to an oak-paneled library, the kind you'd think more appropriate for Masterpiece Theater than Fulmore. Ahead, to the right of the stairs, was a white door held partially open by a black bear's paw.
Bear's paw? The right front paw, to be exact.
"Mr. Fulmore?" I strode over to the paw, which was lying on the floor. It was nearly the size of a baseball mitt, with claws like golf tees. Had to be from a huge black bear. And old. I instantly recognized that the stuffing was excelsior--a straw-like material made from aspen--wrapped with wire. Taxidermists once "stuffed" animal skins by forming manikins from these materials. That method was replaced in the 1970s by off-the-shelf foam urethane forms that were much lighter and rendered more realistic mounts.
I pulled the door open. It was one of those spring-loaded jobs that swung both ways, and it led into a pantry. Attached to the paw was the bear's forearm, and I picked it up with both hands. By the looks of the stump, it had been hastily cut from its mount. A few feet ahead was a large red puddle. I froze. Then I looked closer.
A woman's slip. And beyond that? A large brassiere, also red. I'm no expert, but I'd guess it was a 38D. Okay, so what man at forty-five doesn't have some knowledge of bra sizes?
I didn't like the looks of this. The trail led to a door on the far side of the pantry. Beyond? The red panties, no doubt. I grimly surmised Sprunty was in rut, and I didn't want to be the one to turn the hose au deux d'amour.
So the bear arm and I beat a retreat to the living room, where I sat upon a couch that looked like it had never been sat on, neatening up the contents of my briefcase: a calculator, some lined legal pads, twenty-five-cent pens, a date book, some bottled water, and a box of Milk Duds. Not exactly the contents of Donald Trump's attache, but I'm told he does like the occasional Milk Dud.
Also contained within was a stack of papers Angie had handed me before I left--a dossier of dog breeds. I'd been avoiding reading through it because I wasn't sure I really wanted a dog. But Angie seemed dead set on acquiring a canine to share our digs. We already had Otto, our jack-of-all-trades, and he was like a dog, wasn't he? Better still, I didn't have to chase him down the street with a Baggie on my hand, picking up his warm, moist loafs from the pavement.
On the other hand, I felt a wee bit guilty. Angie and I had opted not to have kids, and if she felt the urge at this late stage for a third party, how could I refuse her a fur bearin' critter? One that wasn't stuffed, that is.
On the third hand, assuming I had one, I had never owned a dog. Not that my brother, Nicholas, and I hadn't begged our mother for one. But my mother wouldn't have it. "Animals," Gabby would say, "are meant to be free." There was a goose and a duck that lived out back, but they were hardly pets.
Well, there was one pet, once. At the tender age of seven I found a puppy--of sorts--by the railroad tracks and hid it in my tree house for a week or two. Let's just say it ended badly.
Excerpted from Tailed by Brian M. Wiprud. Copyright © 2007 by Brian M. Wiprud. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.