11-06-2011, 09:13 PM
The fourth week passed. The ducklings were now in the juvenile stage of their development. They were no longer fluffy little balls of down, but skinny adolescents just developing their feathers. Their voices were still a cross between a squeak and a quack ("Hey! I think their voices are breaking!" Criss once quipped) but louder in volume. Their wings were still stubby armlike appendages, good only for flapping when startled. Though they still clung to Criss' side, the half-grown ducks were beginning to wander away from their foster mother and explore the world around them on their own for short periods of time, clumped together in a tight little group for safety and security.
These changes did not lessen their popularity, however; everywhere they went, cameras followed them, documenting every waddle and quack. They were especially appealing to children who were fascinated by seeing real live ducks in the hotel. The ducklings, by now accustomed to humans, would approach any child who squatted down to their level, curious but cautious. Whenever a child reached out to try to pet them, however, they would scurry away in fear, seeking refuge with their foster mother, Criss, who was always nearby. "It's not a good idea to touch them," Criss would explain patiently. "Since you're so big and they're so small, they think you're gonna try and hurt them somehow. It's okay to look, but not to touch."
The blow-up plastic kiddie pool was finally retired. Instead, the ducklings began using the fountain in the atrium and, later, the pool (Dr. Gilchrist stated that if the chlorine level was safe for humans, it was safe for ducks), to the delight of the guests and the consternation of the maintenance staff. The former enjoyed swimming with the ducklings, even taking underwater photos of their madly paddling webbed feet, or their heads when they upended themselves to search for food. The pool staff, however, were more concerned about duck droppings contaminating the water and creating a health hazard, despite Dr. Gilchrist's assurances that the pool's filtration system would take care of that.
Meanwhile, the housekeeping staff kept busy mopping up little puddles of duck droppings off the floors of the production office, the atrium and the lobby, the entrances and the sidewalk. The smell became so bad that every square foot of carpeting had to be steam-cleaned. By the end of the week, the ducklings' had worn out their welcome at the Luxor as far as the staff was concerned; on Friday morning, Criss received a memo from Luxor's president, Felix Rappaport, urging him to come to his office. Re: DUCKS was scrawled in the message section.
With a lump in his gut, Criss went to the president's office. He knew it wasn't going to be pleasant, but he resolved to put on a brave face. Felix was a good friend of his, so he was confident the situation would be handled amiably. Still, he could not shake the feeling of foreboding churning in his stomach.
Felix greeted Criss in his usual familiar manner and invited him into his spacious office. "Have a seat," he said, offering Criss a chair. "Coffee?"
"Uh, no thanks," Criss replied. "So, what's the deal?"
Felix's friendly smile dropped a couple of notches. "We got a notice from the Department of Health," he told Criss, "and they're not too keen on you allowing your ducks to wander around the hotel like this. They keep polluting the pool with their, you know, poop, and it's all the staff can do to clean up after them. They say they're creating a health hazard for our guests."
"Gee, I'm sorry, Felix," Criss apologized. "It's just that I can't leave them alone at home, you know? If I do, Hammie'll have them for breakfast. Besides, they're still too young to be on their own."
"I understand that, Criss," Felix conceded, "and those little duckies of yours are a big draw here at the Luxor. Any hotel would give anything for that kind of publicity, but I got the welfare of everybody in this hotel to consider." He sighed as he leaned back in his chair. "I'm afraid you and your friend, Dr. Gilchrist, are going to have to make other arrangements."
Criss sighed as well. "Okay," he said, "I'll talk to Brenda and see what we can come up with. Meantime, I'll try to raise them at home." And try to keep Hammie at bay, he added mentally.
Felix smiled. "Thanks, Criss."
"And thank you for being so patient during all this," Criss said, shaking Felix's hand. "I'm surprised you didn't blow your top about them when I first brought them here."
"Well, when you've been in the hospitality business as long as I have, you learn to take these things in stride," Felix said, shrugging. "Kinda reminds me of what my dad used to say: 'Always be like a duck--keep calm and unruffled on the surface but paddle like the devil underneath.'"
Criss laughed at that. "That's funny," he said. "I gotta remember that."
A pat on the shoulder, a quick good-bye with a promise to take care of the duckling situation, and Criss was on his way back to the production office. Or, rather, producktion office, as some clown had scrawled on a piece of paper taped to the glass door. Scowling, Criss pulled down the crude sign and crumpled it in his fist. Ha, ha, funny, he grumbled inwardly. Everybody's a comedian.
He saw the ducklings paddling around in the large plastic pool by the window. A few children watched them through the observation window. He recalled Felix's words: those little duckies of yours are a big draw here at the Luxor; any hotel would give anything for that kind of publicity. It saddened him a little to think that he would disappoint his younger fans when he had to take the ducklings away from the hotel for good, but he had no choice in the matter--the health department decreed they had to go.
He tossed the paper into the nearest wastebasket and headed for his office, where a brown paper parcel waited for him on his desk. Probably another duck-related gift, he guessed as he casually tore off the wrapping.
It was another duck-related gift, but quite an extraordinary one: it was a finely carved wooden Mallard duck decoy, expertly hand painted in green, grey and black. Criss turned it over and over, admiring the workmanship. "Wow," he murmured, "this is nice. I wonder who sent it?"
He began to search the wrapping for the name of the donor. He found a small card inside that read Thought this might help--Tom.
Criss smiled. Tom, his assistant, was always looking out for him. He didn't know how a wooden decoy was going to help himm but he made a mental note to thank him all the same, and ask him where he got it in the first place.
A sharp knock startled him. He looked up and saw Lucas "Big Luke" Macaffey, the Luxor's chief of security, standing at the door. Criss's stomach tied itself into a knot at the sight of him. He knew from hard experience that whenever the hotel's top cop showed up, bad news was sure to follow. He also knew that it was bad policy to keep him waiting. "Come on in, Big Luke," he said, hiding his distress.
Big Luke stepped into the office. "Morning," he grunted by way of greeting, then he got down to business. "The boss tell you about your ducks?"
It was not so much a query as a veiled threat of the consequences yet to come. "Yeah, the boss told me about the ducks," Criss replied, refusing to be intimidated. "Dr. Gilchrist and I are gonna take care of it, I promise."
Macaffey seemed satisfied. "Good," he grunted.
He was about to turn around and leave when he spotted the decoy in Criss' hands. At the sight of the magnificent piece Macaffey's whole demeanor changed. The gruffness fell away, and his coarse face brightened like the sun. For the first time since Criss had been at the Luxor, he actually saw him smile. "Say!" he exclaimed. "That's a fine looking decoy you got there! Where'd you get it?"
"Can't say for sure," Criss replied. "I just found it on my desk a few minutes ago. My assistant gave it to me as a gift."
Macaffey took the decoy and examined it. "Hmph! Wood. You don't see many wooden decoys these days; the ones they got today are all made of resin." He handed it back to Criss. "Fine thing to put on your mantlepiece," he said. "Whoever made it sure knew his stuff. Damn good craftsmanship, I can tell you that."
Criss took the decoy and followed Macaffey to the main door. Outside, the children giggled and pointed at the ducklings frolicking in the water. Criss allowed them inside the office for a better view, knowing this would be the last time they would see them. The children circled the makeshift duck pond, still giggling and laughing. Macaffey quietly took his leave, deciding that now was not the best time to talk about the duck hunting trip he went on with his father up in Oregon twenty-five years ago.