Springtime in the desert can be both beautiful and dangerous. The milder air stirs new life among the cacti and scrub, bringing forth blossoms of unique beauty and brief duration, while at the same time snowmelt from the mountains create flash floods which can sweep away houses and cars unlucky enough to be in the path of the onrushing muddy waters. Into this maelstrom of destruction comes forth new life in this arid region.
Around Lake Meade, the biggest manmade lake in America resulting from excavation for the Hoover Dam, ducks, geese and other waterfowl make their nests among the rocky shore, concealed from predators by the tall lake reeds and cattails. Marshland is practically nonexistant in the Southwestern part of the United States, and natural habitats are quickly diminishing in man's quest for dominance on this planet ("progress", he calls it), so whatever suitable spot which can be found is quickly taken over by wildlife to begin the natural cycle of mating and nesting once again.
On this fine spring day, a pair of mallard ducks chose a prime spot to start their family: a grassy knoll beside the lake, well hidden from sight of predators. The female, or hen, used the grass to build the nest, lining it with down plucked from her own breast to make a soft bed for her eggs. The male, or drake, kept guard over the nest, protecting his mate-for-life and his young from whatever danger would come their way.
In time, six white eggs are laid in the downy nest. Now the hen must sit on them for four weeks, incubating them with her own body. Four times a day, she turned them over and moved them around to keep every part of the growing embryos warm. Therer were no weasels or foxes in the desert, but there was the threat of snakes and lizards; the hen remained vigilant throughout the incubation period. Who knew what dangers lurked along the shore of Lake Meade?
A month has passed. The weather had grown warmer. The hen felt hungry, so she left her nest just long enough to dabble in the water for food. She would leave her nest only for a moment, then return to incubating her eggs. Unfortunatly, it was a moment too long--a loud crack! broke the stillness of the desert air, and the hen exploded in a burst of feathers and blood. The eggs lay in their downy nest, unprotected, alone.
Along that same shoreline where the hen had laid her eggs, famous illusionist Criss Angel was setting up for his latest demonstration: an underwater escape that promised to be his greatest (read: most dangerous) to date. His crew, consisting mostly of members of his own family and a few close friends, had their misgivings about the whole enterprise. Of all the escapes a magician can perform, underwater escapes were the most dangerous. In spite of all the safety precautions, there was still the possibility of Criss drowning in the lake.
Criss himself was not complacent about it, either. He knew that one mistake, one error in judgement, or one piece of faulty equipment could spell his doom. He had examined this stunt from every possible angle and did his best to anticipate anything that could go wrong, yet there was still the underlying concern that the unexpected could crop up during the demonstration and end in tragedy. In spite of the danger, he was determined to carry it out--his art, his audience, indeed his very nature, demanded it.
The crew was going over a routine equipment check when a loud bang! startled them. Everyone stopped what they were doing and looked around, wondering what had just happened. "What the hell was that?" Criss said, looking around the shoreline.
"Sounds like a gun," Doug Malloy replied.
"Hey, there's not supposed to be any hunting around here!" Criss said indignantly. "Someone could get hurt!"
"This from a man who's gonna drown himself in a lake!" Doug sneered.
Criss muttered a reply along the lines of telling Doug to keep his opinions to himself and headed for the small motorboat anchored nearby. "I'm gonna find out who's shooting around the lake," he said as he untied the boat from its mooring. "I don't want any casualties around here while we're taping."
Brothers JD and Costa joined him in the boat. "Just make sure you don't become a casualty yourself," the former told him.
The motorboat chugged along the shoreline, its occupants keeping a lookout for the mysterious gunman of the lake. "You see anything?" Criss asked his brothers.
JD shook his head. "Nothing," he replied. "I think it was just a bunch of (bleep)holes helling around, using their guns as noisemakers. Probably drunk outta their minds."
Criss nodded in agreement. "Think we should turn back?"
"Yeah, maybe we should," JD sighed. "There's nobody out here."
The brothers were about to turn the boat around when something caught Costa's eye. "Hey!" he cried, pointing to a grassy knoll. "Over there!"
Criss steered the boat toward the knoll and killed the engine when the bow touched land. Costa spread the grass wide enough to reveal the blasted remains of the hen duck who had nested there. "Looks like someone's been doing a little duck hunting out of season," Costa commented grimly.
Criss felt revulsion rising in his throat. "My God!" he choked. "Who could do such a thing to a helpless duck?"
Costa reached over farther and exposed the nest of eggs. "This must've been her nest," he observed.
"So, what do we do?" JD asked.
"The thing to do is report this to the authorities," Criss replied. "Poaching's against the law, and as law-abiding citizens, we have a duty to report this. Meantime," he went on, stripping off his t-shirt, "I'm going to make sure these little guys are put somewhere safe and sound."
"Uh, Criss," JD spoke up, "I don't think that's a good idea..."
Criss gathered the eggs into his shirt and bundled them up. "Hey, you wanna just leave 'em here for snake food? They'll be fine; like, what's your worry? They'll just take 'em to some wildlife sanctuary and let 'em hatch, and take care of 'em until they can be released into the wild. Trust me, everything's gonna work out just fine!"
The eggs were stowed under the seat of the boat, and the threesome made their way back to the demonstration site, unaware of the life stirring within the six eggs wrapped snugly in Criss' t-shirt.
Back at the demonstration site, Criss carried the shirtful of eggs to his Range Rover and set them on the front passenger seat. "There you go, little guys," he said softly. "You'll be safe in here."
"You gotta keep 'em warm," a voice spoke behind him.
Criss turned and saw Dean Waring, the newest member of the camera crew, standing there. "Come again?" Criss asked.
"Eggs need to be kept warm if they're gonna hatch," Dean repeated.
"Since when are you an expert on eggs?"
"Since I was in 4-H when I was a kid," Dean replied. "I hatched baby chicks using a sixty-watt bulb and a shoebox back in Nebraska. If the eggs aren't kept warm, the chicks inside the eggs'll die."
"Well, okay," Criss said, conceding to Dean's experience, "but I don't have any light bulbs or anything--just my shirt."
"Well, you'd better find something soon," Dean warned him, "or else."
Criss motioned Dean to follow him. "C'mon, let's see what we can use in the supply van."
They trotted over to the boxy white van and pulled open the rear doors. Inside was a jumble of cables, lights, tripods, camera equipment and other technical supplies needed for taping the show. Criss climbed inside the van and began to search for anything warm enough to incubate the eggs. "Hey, these overhead lights get pretty hot," he said. "Maybe we can hook up one of them and set the eggs on it."
Dean opened up a large first aid kit. "Here's something better," he said. "Thermal packs."
Criss picked his way over the coils of cable back to Dean. "Yeah! There you go!" he cheered. "Those'll work."
The two men raced back to the Rover. Dean broke open the thermal packs to activate the heating elements inside and laid them over the bundle of eggs. "That'll hold 'em for a while," he said.
Criss clapped Dean on the shoulder. "Good job, Dean," he said. "Couldn't have done it without you. Now I got to call the cops and tell 'em about what happened to their mother."
"You'd be better off calling Animal Control," Dean told him. "They handle stuff like that."
"You know the number?"
"Not offhand, but I know they can help you with your egg problem better than the cops."
Criss pulled out his cell phone and dialed nine-one-one. It was easier than trying to locate the animal shelter, he figured. They would direct him to the proper authorities pertaining to this matter.
"Nine-one-one, what is your emergency?" the operator asked.
"Uh, hi," Criss began. "Uh, I want to report a poaching incident here at Lake Meade. Somebody shot a mother duck all to hell and left six orphaned eggs. Can you send someone from Animal Control or something?"
"Did you see anyone shoot the duck in question?"
"No, I didn't, but I did hear a shot from about a quarter of a mile from where I'm standing. There's not much left of that poor mama duck, by the way. It was blown all to hell."
"All right, sir, we'll send out ASPCA officials to investigate the poaching incident. Can you give me your location?"
Criss gave the operator the location of the demonstration site. "Thank you, sir," the operator said. "They're on their way."
He flipped off his phone and stuffed it in his pocket. "They're sending out the Animal Cops," he said to Dean. "Everything's cool. Now, let's get back to work."
The afternoon ran its course. The demonstration rehersal went well with no accidents or mistakes. All the safety procedures performed to peak capacity. Criss was confident that the taping tomorrow would be smooth sailing. The crew was busy taking down the equipment and packing it into the van when a large SUV with the Nevada state ASPCA logo rolled down toward the site. Criss had all but forgotten he had called them, so busy he had been with the demonstration practice. He ran toward the SUV, waving and calling out "Hi!"
The truck stopped midway, and two uniformed police officers, a tall man with a fashionable goatee and a slim blonde woman, climbed out. "You called about a poaching incident?" the man asked.
"Uh, yeah, I did," Criss replied, a bit embarrassed about having forgotten about it. "It happened down that way." He pointed in the direction where he and his brothers had taken the boat. "When we heard the shot, me and my brothers took the boat over there to investigate."
"Can you take us there?" the officer asked.
"Uh, yeah, sure."
Criss took the officers to the boat and untied it. The two officers climbed into the boat and sat down on the narrow benches while Criss shoved it into the water, hopping in at the last minute. He pulled the starter on the outboard motor, and they were off to the scene of the crime.
The little boat glided along the shoreline to the grassy knoll. "There it is!" Criss cried out. "That's where the nest was!"
He turned the boat toward the knoll and killed the motor. "See?" he said, pointing to the remains of the mother duck. "Son of a (bleep) blew her all to hell."
The female officer picked up the blasted carcass and set it gently onto the floor of the boat. "This wasn't poaching," she said. "This was just killing for its own sake. Someone was just using it for target practice."
"You mean like a drive-by shooting?" Criss asked.
"Drive-bys are more gang-related," the female officer said. "Whoever killed this duck was just plain trigger-happy." She scanned the knoll. "The father duck can't be too far off," she said. "I'm no duck expert, but I heard they mate for life. He's gotta be here somewhere." She turned to Criss. "Did you see a male duck around when you found the female?"
Criss shook his head. "Nope," he replied. "She was alone with her eggs."
The female officer looked into the nest. "I don't see any eggs."
"Well, I took 'em with me," Criss explained sheepishly. "I mean, I didn't want them to get eaten by snakes or nothing. I mean, there are snakes in this area, I heard."
"Where are the eggs now?"
"In my Rover. Dean and I put some thermal packs on them to keep them warm. He's a 4-H expert on baby chicks, you know."
The female officer didn't know, but she nodded anyway. Meanwhile, the tall male officer was scanning the area around the knoll. "Hey, over there," he said, pointing to a spot not too far from the nest.
He climbed out of the boat and onto the knoll, then stepped carefully along the shoreline to a scrubby area about two feet away from the knoll. He reached down and picked up the limp form of a dead mallard, its hunter-green neck swaying like a rope from a tree. "I think we just found Papa Duck," he shouted.
Criss watched mournfully as the duck carcasses were crated, labeled as evidence and stored in the SUV. Memories of his father's body taken away to the morgue on the day he died of stomach cancer replayed in his mind. He had yearned for one last look upon his father's face as the gurney bearing the body was wheeled by two attendants in starched white shirts into the cororner's ambulance, covered head to toe in a blinding white sheet as if to conceal the horror of death from the world of the living. He would not see it again until the funeral, and even then only for a brief time before the casket in which his father lay would be interred into the cold, dark earth.
But this wasn't the same, he reminded himself. Those ducks didn't die of a lingering illness as his father did; this was senseless, cold-blooded murder. Someone took a couple of potshots at a pair of innocent ducks who simply wanted to create what they hoped was a safe place to raise their young. Now the poor little ducklings would never know their parents, thanks to whomever was too callous or too drunk or just too stupid to care. At least he had rescued them in time, thank God.
I'm gonna make sure those little ducklings are cared for, he vowed. I don't know how or where I'm gonna do it, but I'm gonna make sure those little guys live somewhere safe from (bleep)holes like whoever shot their parents! And if I ever find out who did it, I am so gonna kick his ass all the way to (bleeping) Mexico!
Criss turned to the female ASPCA officer approaching him. "Thank you for reporting this incident," she said, shaking his hand. "We'll take the ducks to HQ for a post-mortem. As for the eggs, well, we don't have the facilities to care for them. You can call Wildlife Rescue of Nevada in Valgado, however. It's about twenty miles south of Reno if you care to make the trip."
Criss smiled politely. "Thanks," he said. "I'll give them a call."
They shook hands again, and the ASPCA truck sped off. Criss walked toward his Rover and opened the passenger door. "How're you doing, little guys?" he said cheerfully. "You keeping warm under there?"
He picked up one of the thermal packs to readjust it. It was cold. "Oh, no!" he said fearfully. "Oh, no! Oh, God, please!"
He punched the packs to try to reactivate them. "Come on! Come on!" he muttered through gritted teeth. It was no good. The packs had expended their heat supply; they were just lumps of cold silicone gel. In desperation, Criss called out, "Dean! Dean, I need you here! The packs are cold!"
Dean ran toward the Rover. "What's up?" he asked.
"The packs are cold!" Criss cried. "We gotta save the eggs!"
Dean thought fast. "Does your heater work?"
"Of course it works! Why?"
"Does it blow onto the floor?"
"Well, uh, I-I think so."
Dean stuck his head into the Rover and examined the control panel. "Okay," he said. "Put the eggs on the floor and make a tent around them."
Criss did as Dean instructed. He laid the bundle of eggs onto the floor under the dash, then curtained them with the parka coat he had left in the Rover last winter. "Now, turn on the heater and direct it onto the floor," Dean told him.
Criss climbed into the driver's seat, adjusted the controls, started up the engine, and turned on the heater. Hot air blasted his feet, nearly toasting them, but the eggs were once again safe from cold. "God, I hope we're not too late," he murmured.
Dean closed the passenger door. "You think you got it under control?" he asked.
"I think I'm good," Criss replied, still hoping the eggs had not suffered any damage.
"Okay, then, gimme a call if you have any trouble."
"Right. See you tomorrow."
Dean walked away. JD and Costa walked up to the Rover and climbed in. "My God!" JD exclaimed. "It's like a friggin' oven in here! You got the heater on or what?"
"Sorry, guys," Criss said, "but Dean says I gotta keep the eggs warm or they'll die."
"Well, you don't have to roast them!" JD retorted. "Can't you turn down the heat a little?"
Criss shook his head. "Can't. You guys are just gonna have to grin and bear it until we get home."
So JD and Costa were forced to endure a sweltering ninety-minute ride back to Criss' estate, Serenity. They kept the windows rolled down to cool off while wishing they had some bottled water to rehydrate themselves. "First thing I'm gonna do when we get home," Costa muttered, "I'm gonna throw myself into the pool!"
"First thing I'm going to do," JD said, "I'm gonna throw Criss into the pool! And I'm gonna hold him down until he comes to his senses!"
"Yeah, like that's gonna happen," Costa said, wiping his sweating brow. "You'll drown him first."
Veritas I wish you'd stop reading my mind I love this story
Serenity, Criss' twenty-five-million-dollar estate, lived up to its name that spring evening. The shrubbery, just beginning to bud, swayed gently in the desert breeze. A soft trickle of water from the fountain in front of the sprawling mansion accompanied the few birds twittering in the trees. The setting sun gilded the tiled landscape with a coppery golden light.
This quiet scene was shattered by the booming thump of car stereo woofers as Criss swerved up the main drive and parked by the front door. He shut off the engine, killing both the noise and the insufferable heat inside the Rover, to the great relief of his brothers in the back seat. JD and Costa bolted out of the Rover to cool off in the evening air. "Oh, man!" JD exclaimed, airing his sweating body by flicking his shirt, "thank God we're home!"
Costa said nothing; he just peeled off his sweat-drenched shirt and cast it aside as he strode toward the giant pool in the back of the mansion, all the while cursing his younger brother for nearly baking him alive, eggs or no eggs. When he reached the rear patio, he unbuckled his belt, pulled down his khaki shorts and briefs, and dove nude into the crystal clear water, savoring the refreshing chill of it. He surfaced, tossed his head to clear the water and his hair from his eyes, and whooped in a combination of relief and triumph. "Come on in, bro!" he called to JD. "The water's fine!"
JD watched all this from a distance at first. The pool did look tempting, especially from that sweltering ride in the Rover, so he pulled off his clothes as well, but kept his briefs on for the sake of his dignity, and dove into the pool as well. His overheated flesh cooled off instantly on contact with the water. It was bliss.
He emerged and turned to Costa. "Oh, man, that feels good!" he said, wiping the pool water from his face. He looked around. "Hey, where's Criss?"
"Tending to his eggs, I guess," Costa replied, shrugging.
JD looked through the large glass windows leading to the living room. "I see him," he said. "Yeah, he's got those eggs all right."
Costa chuckled a little. "Wouldn't it be funny if they hatched?"
"Well, I don't know how funny it would be," JD said, shrugging, "but that's Criss' problem. He's the one who took them from their nest, so he's responsible for them."
Inside the house, Criss laid the bundle of eggs gently on the seat of an overstuffed chair. "I hope you little guys made it all right," he said anxiously. "God, I hope I'm not too late."
With a feeling of trepadition he unwrapped the eggs. A flicker of movement startled him. He spread out the shirt covering to reveal six quivering balls of wet featherdown set among broken shards of eggshell. There was a tiny peep, then another, then another, then all six joined in the chorus celebrating their emergence into the world.
Criss could only stare at this miracle in awed silence. My God! he thought. They're alive! They all made it! Oh, thank You, God! Thank You!
He got up and dashed toward the pool. "Hey, guys!" he shouted. "They hatched! The eggs have all hatched! Come on! Check it out!"
JD and Costa reluctantly pulled themselves out of the pool to see what was happening inside the house. They managed to find a couple of towels in the small cabana used as a dressing room and dried themselves off, Costa wrapping his around his naked hips. "Okay, what's the deal?" JD asked.
Criss pointed excitedly at the overstuffed chair. "Look!" he cried happily. "They hatched!"
He knelt down beside the t-shirt nest and gently stroked the ducklings' tiny heads. "Hey, little guys!" he crooned. "How ya doin'? Happy birthday! Welcome to the world!"
"Congratulations, Criss," JD said. "It's septuplets."
"So, you gonna pass out cigars or something?" Costa joked.
Criss looked up at his brothers. "Ha, ha, very funny," he deadpanned. "And you know I hate cigars."
Suddenly, Hammie, Criss' cat, leapt up onto the arm of the overstuffed chair to see what his owner was so interested in. Criss reached out to pet him. "Hey, Hammie," he cooed. "Looks like you got yourself some new siblings."
Hammie stared down at the peeping balls of fluff, their down just beginning to dry out, and growled in his throat. "I think Hammie's jealous," said JD.
"I think Hammie's hungry," Costa said.
Criss felt a needleprick of fear in the back of his mind. He had seen his cat stalk small lizards and the occasional bird around the estate; the six helpless ducklings sitting in the makeshift nest were appetizers for him. He didn't want to get rid of Hammie, of course, but he felt responsible for the six little lives bundled in his t-shirt on the chair. He knew he had to do something, and fast. But what?
JD divined Criss' predicament. "I really think you should call someone," he advised. "I'm sure there's a wildlife preserve or something willing to take them in."
Criss turned to his brother. "Yeah? Like where?"
"I dunno," JD replied, shrugging. "Go online and Google it."
Criss rose and turned to go to his office. The minute he was away from the nest, however, the peeping grew louder, more frantic. He returned quickly and knelt down by the chair again. "Hey, it's okay, little guys," he crooned affectionatly. "I'll be gone for just a second. I'll be right back, I promise."
He stood up again to go to his office. Again, the frantic peeping. "What's the matter, guys?" he asked the ducklings. "What are you afraid of? It's okay, I'm just gonna go to the office for a minute."
The peeping continued. Criss glanced at Hammie. Suddenly he understood. "Oh, I get it--you're afraid Hammie's gonna eat you up." He picked up his cat. "There," he said. "I'll just take him with me, and you won't have to worry anymore." He stroked the cat's head. "C'mon, Hammie, let's go."
While the danger posed by Hammie had been averted, the peeping still continued. "What?" Criss cried out in exasperation. "What's the matter with you guys, huh?"
Costa tapped Criss on the shoulder. "I think they're going through separation anxiety disorder," he said.
"Well, I'm no naturalist, but I read somewhere that when ducklings hatch, the first thing they see move, they think it's Mom. You saw them hatch, they saw you, so..."
Criss dropped Hammie as the awful truth sank in. "Wait a minute, wait a minute. You mean to tell me they think I'm their mother?"
Costa tried to suppress a laugh. "Yeah, that's just about the size of it."
JD could not hold back his own laughter, but let it out in fits and spurts. "Oh, my God!" he chortled. "Oh, my God! Criss is a mother! Oh, God, wait'll everybody hears about this!"
Criss' face burned from embarrassment. "God, this is just what I need," he grumbled.
The peeping grew even more frantic. Criss turned to see Hammie on the arm of the chair, crouched in attack mode over the nest. "Hammie, no!" he shouted as he lunged toward his cat. "Get away from those ducklings!
He grabbed Hammie and whisked him away from the nest. "Don't you ever go near those ducklings again, do you hear me?" he scolded the cat. "They're not for you to eat, understand?"
Hammie glared at Criss, angry at having been deprived of his prey. Criss handed Hammie over to Costa and returned to the nest. "It's okay, guys," he reassured them. "I won't let anything happen to you."
The peeping quieted down immediatly. JD looked at Costa. "Maternal instinct," he joked. "There's no fighting it."
Honestly I could see this and I'd probably would be laughing myself
A full moon hung over Serenity that night. Criss lay in bed, sound asleep, a rare occurance as he usually lay awake over planning his next demonstration or worrying about performing it without hurting or killing himself. It had been a trying day, what with the ducklings and all. Hammie, his cat, lay curled up beside him on the pillow as was his habit, the stalking incident forgotten for the time being.
The ducklings slept huddled together in their makeshift nest of soiled t-shirt and cardboard shoebox over a glowing sixty-watt bulb (recommended by Dean Waring, the cameraman who aided Criss in the egg recovery) to keep them warm, well away from Hammie's reach. Their down had dried out, leaving them fluffy and soft to the touch. They did not need food as their yolk sacs had fed them while they were still in the eggs. Safe and warm in their t-shirt-shoebox nest, they passed the night in peace and contentment.
With the dawn, however, came chaos.
Criss woke up to the sound of persistant peeping. He turned over and tried to shut out the noise with his pillow, groaning, "Shut up, you guys, I'm trying to sleep!" But the six ducklings would not comply. The peeping went on without cease. Irate, Criss flung the bedclothes aside and wrenched himself out of bed. "Okay! Okay!" he growled. "I'm up!"
He pulled on his bathrobe and walked over to the nest, rubbing the sleep from his stubbled face. "What the hell do you want?" he snapped.
The ducklings quieted immediatly and looked up at Criss. "You guys hungry or something?" he asked them. "You want breakfast? Huh? Is that what you want?"
The ducklings simply stared at him with their tiny beadlike eyes. "I don't know what you guys eat, but I think I can find you some breadcrumbs or something in the kitchen," he said. "Hold on a minute, I'll be right back."
He turned away from the nest. The frantic peeping started up again. Frustrated, Criss picked up the shoebox. "Okay, okay!" he said. "I'll take you with me! Happy now?"
The peeping stopped. Criss carried the shoebox out of the bedroom. "Geez!" he said, "I turn around for two seconds and you think I abandoned you!"
Normally, the spacious, well-equipped kitchen was the domain of his personal chef, Ed Bible; Criss' culinary expertise was limited to ordering from a menu, so he left it to the more talented Chef Ed to prepare his meals. Ed wasn't available at that particular point in time to help him feed his new charges, so Criss was left to his own devices. Feeling completely lost in the kitchen of his own home, he searched desperately for a box of breadcrumbs or whatever he thought his ducks would like to eat. "There's gotta be something here," he muttered as he opened and closed cupboard after cupboard. "There's gotta be something--"
Finally, he located the walk-in pantry, stocked floor to ceiling with boxes and cans of food. "Yeah, here we are," he said. "I'm sure he's got something here I can use."
He stepped into the pantry. Outside, the peeping echoed loudly off the tiled walls. "All right! All right!" Criss called out to them. "I'm coming, I'm coming! Keep your feathers on, willya?"
He found a box of salad croutons, but they were much too large for the tiny ducklings to swallow. There was a container of garlic-flavored breadcrumbs, but Criss felt it would be too spicy for them to handle. Finally, he found a box of cornmeal, just the right consistancy for the newborns. "Okay!" he exclaimed in triumph. "Breakfast is served!"
He poured some cornmeal into a shallow bowl and set it into the middle of the nest. Not a good idea, he thought, as he noticed it left very little room for the ducklings to move around, let alone eat. Besides, they probably needed some water as well. He removed the bowl and set it on the floor, filled another shallow bowl with water, set it beside the cornmeal, then took the nest off the counter and set each duckling, one by one, beside the bowls. "There," he said. "Now you can eat."
He sat down on the floor beside them and watched as the ducklings wobbled on unsteady legs, trying to gain a sense of balance. Criss realized this was their first attempt at walking since they had hatched yesterday. "Come on, little guys," he prodded, "you can make it."
Gradually, the little ducklings gained control over their spindly legs and waddled toward the bowls. "That's it," Criss encouraged them. "Come and get it."
The ducklings stuck their tiny beaks into the bowls of cornmeal and water, curious as to what was in it. Criss sat on the floor, watching them with almost paternal pride. "You guys eat your breakfast," he told them. "I gotta get ready for work."
He got up from the floor and walked out of the kitchen. So did the ducklings. They followed him out of the kitchen and toward the stairs in a neat line, nearly running to keep up with him. Criss did not notice this until he was on the first step of the stairway. He looked down and saw his little brood around his feet, looking up expectantly at him. "Hey," he said, puzzled. "What are you guys doing here? You should be back in the kitchen." He waved them away. "Go on, shoo!"
The ducklings did not budge. "I gotta go to work, okay, guys?" he said. "I can't have you underfoot when I'm working. Now, go on, go finish your breakfast."
He stepped up another step on the stairs. The ducklings crowded around the first step as if trying to climb up. Irritated, Criss stepped down and squatted in front of the ducklings. "Look, guys," he said, trying to be reasonable. "I got a job to do, and I can't take you with me, understand? Now, let's go back into the kitchen and finish our breakfast, okay? C'mon, let's go."
He rose and walked back to the kitchen. The ducklings instinctively followed him, trotting as fast as they could to keep up. Criss bent down and tapped the bowl of cornmeal. "C'mon, guys," he said. "Eat your breakfast."
The ducklings huddled around the bowls. "Now you stay there while I get ready for work, okay, guys?" he ordered them. "You wanna swim? The pool's out back."
Again he walked out of the kitchen, and again the ducklings followed. Criss whirled around, exasperated. "Will you stop following me around?!" he exploded. "What the hell's wrong with you guys, anyway?"
"There's nothing wrong with them, Criss," he heard a voice speak up.
Criss turned around and saw his brother, JD, leaning on the stair rail, grinning. "They're just following their instincts," he continued. "You're their mom, remember? Where you go, they go. There's nothing you can do about it."
"But I gotta be at the Luxor by nine AM," Criss told him. "I can't take them with me. They'll get lost, or get stepped on or something."
And he thought this was going to be easy
He looked at JD warily. "Hey, how come you know so much about ducks, anyway?"
"Oh, I did a little Googling last night," JD replied. "For one thing, keeping wild ducks as pets is against the law--they're a protected species. And second, since you were the first thing they saw move, they adoped you as their mommy. They're gonna follow you no matter where you go, so...you might as well get used to it if you wanna keep them."
"First of all, I'm not keeping them as pets," Criss argued. "I just rescued them, that's all. And second, I can't have them following me all over the place 'cause they'll get stepped on or lost or whatever. I want them to be safe, but I don't want them underfoot. I mean, I got my shows to do, and the demonstration to tape. I can't spend all my time baby-sitting a bunch of ducks."
"Well, you'd better make a decision soon," JD told him. "Those ducklings are too young to take care of themselves, and if you leave them here at home, Hammie's gonna have them for breakfast."
Criss looked down at the ducklings huddled around his feet. JD did have a point, he conceded. If he left them here at Serenity, Hammie would make short work of them. But the minute he was out of their sight, they would start crying for their mother. They had just been hatched from the egg; they were newborn babies who needed constant care. It wasn't as if he could hire a baby-sitter for them or leave them at a day-care center for the day. He pitied the six tiny orphans standing helpless before him, but at the same time he resented the responsibility for caring for them. What did he know about raising ducks? Hammie had never been a problem. Cats were practically low-maintenance to the point of self-sufficiency: a bowl of food, some water, and a clean litter box and they were fine. The ducklings, however, needed round-the-clock care, something he could not afford to do, not with his career and all. Yet he could not bring himself to abandon them; they would die without someone to feed them. He had to do something, and fast.
The sleek black Dodge Viper glided up to the main entrance of the Luxor Hotel and Resort and came to a stop millimeters from the curb. Matt Behr, the clubfooted parking attendant on duty that morning, limped up to the driver's side, smiling broadly. He knew only one person drove that particular vehicle; besides, the circle-A logo was branded prominantly on the wheel rims. "Mawnin', Mr. Angel," he drawled, "how ya doin' today?"
"Morning, Matt," Criss said, handing Matt the keys. "Gimme a hand here, willya?"
He jerked his thumb at the passenger seat bearing a wire cage with six lively ducklings inside. Matt did a double-take when he saw them. "Criminy! Is them ducks?"
"Yeah, them's ducks all right," Criss replied drily. "I need you to get 'em outta here, okay?"
Matt limped around to the passenger side and opened the door. He picked up the wire cage and laughed. "Well, I'll be hanged! I've seen you bring in all sorts of critters, but this takes the grand prize at the county fair! Where'd you get 'em, anyway?"
Criss took the cage from Matt. "Long story," he replied. "I gotta get going here, okay. I'll be by later."
"Yes, sir, Mr. Angel, sir," Matt said, saluting. It did no good to pry. Criss Angel was a magician, and magicians were full of surprises. At least it wasn't a snake or one of those big bugs from Africa or somewhere; things like that gave Matt the willies like nothing else. A bunch of baby ducks? No big deal.
In fact, the baby ducks turned out to be an even bigger deal than Matt surmised. Everyone in the production office had to drop what they were doing and gush over the cute little duckies. They cooed, they crooned, they giggled and they fussed over the six downy chicks cowering in the cage, terrified of the giants surrounding them. A few stuck their fingers through the wire mesh to pet them, only to see the poor things cringe and flee in terror. In the end, Criss had to take the ducklings into his office, ordering everyone back to work.
He set the cage next to his desk, plugged in a small space heater and set it next to the cage. He turned it on low heat, then settled himself down at his desk to work out the details for his latest demonstration. The heat calmed the ducklings, lulling them to sleep. Criss was able to work undisturbed throughout the morning.
A knock on the door interrupted him. "Who is it?" he called out.
"Criss?" he heard his personal assistant, Tom, call back. "Meeting time."
Criss looked at his watch. It read eleven AM. (Bleep)! he cursed to himself. I forgot about the production meeting!
He rose from his chair and stepped toward the door. Unfortunatly, he tripped over the duck cage, waking his little brood. The shaken ducklings peeped loudly, frightened out of their wits over the sudden jolt. Criss hissed a few choice expletives as he regained his bearings. He lowered himself to the ducklings' level. "I got a meeting to go to, guys," he told them. "You'll be safe here in the office." He adjusted the heater. "There, now you'll be nice and warm while I'm gone."
He rose to leave. The frantic peeping grew even louder. Criss could almost detect a look of absolute panic on their faces. Don't go, Mommy! they seemed to be saying. Don't leave us! We want to go with you! We need you to protect us!
Criss sighed and picked up the cage. "Come on, guys," he grumbled. "We got a meeting to go to."
From the moment Criss arrived at the meeting with the ducklings, he knew he was in trouble. The quacking from his crew clued him in on what to expect for the next two hours.
JD fired the first round. "Well, if it isn't Mother Duck!"
More quacking and laughing. Criss raised his hand in a placating gesture. "Okay, guys, you had your fun. Now let's get down to business here, shall we?"
He set the cage on the table and turned to JD. "You had to go and tell them, didn't you?" he said accusingly.
"Look, Criss, everyone knew you took those eggs. I didn't have to tell them anything--at least, not much."
Joaquin Ayela, a fellow magician and consultant, leaned over the cage. "Hola, little patitos!" he cooed. "Hola."
"What are you gonna call 'em?" Doug Malloy asked Criss.
"Yeah, what are you gonna call 'em? You gotta call 'em something, right?"
"They're called ducklings, okay?" Criss retorted.
"I meant, what are their names?" Doug pressed.
Criss shrugged. "Gee, I dunno. It never occurred to me to give them names."
Doug looked at Criss in mock indignation. "Geez! What kind of mother are you, not naming your kids?"
"They're not my kids!" Criss exclaimed. "I just rescued them, okay?"
Doug leaned over to the cage. He pointed out one duckling who had just stepped away from the others. "Hey, Ducky," he said. "You're our little ducky, ain't ya? Yeah, you're just ducky, ain't ya?"
Criss rolled his eyes. Doug pointed to another one. "And this one we'll call...um...Downy."
"You mean like the fabric softener?" Criss' cousin, George, asked."
"Yeah, whatever," Doug replied. "And this one will be...?"
"Quackers!" George blurted.
"Quackers!" Doug cheered. "So we got Ducky, Downy and Quackers. Any suggestions?"
Joaquin petted a duckling huddled in a corner. "I'm gonna call this one Omlette."
"Hey, it's a nice name," Joaquin protested. "A pretty name, a French name. Especially if it's a girl."
Doug nodded. "Okay, Omlette it is."
JD started laughing all of a sudden. "Hey, I got a great one!" he said. "How about Yolk-O!"
Criss stared at his brother in bewilderment. "Yolk-O?"
"Sure, as in Yolk-O Ono?"
Everyone groaned at the pun, but the name was adopted anyway. "Okay," Doug said, "we got one more. Any ideas?"
"How about Donald?" George suggested.
The suggestion was vetoed down. "Too obvious," Doug said.
Costa, who had been enjoying the scene from the sidelines, spoke up. "How about Ferdinand?"
"Ferdinand?" everyone chorused.
"Isn't that a bull?" Criss asked.
"Hey, don't you remember the movie Babe?" Costa said. "There was a duck named Ferdinand in it."
"Well, I never saw the movie," Doug said, "but, okay, we'll go with Ferdinand."
Criss rose to his feet. "Okay, the ducks got their names," he said. "Now, can we please get on with the meeting?"
The meeting lasted for two hours, but very little got accomplished. The ducklings were too much of a distraction sitting on the table, but whenever Criss moved them, they peeped loudly in protest, so back on the table they went. Near the end of the meeting, someone suggested lunch. "How about that new Chinese place?" George suggested. "I forgot the name, but I hear they got some great food there, especially the Peking duck."
Everyone stared at George for such a callous statement. George clamped his hand over his mouth. "Oops! Sorry, Criss. No offense."
Criss looked down at the ducklings. "You didn't hear that," he said.
Omelette are you nuts?
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