by M. H. Callway
The Lizard, was previously published in 2013 in the summer issue of Crimespree Magazine (Issue 52). This one isn’t so much a mystery, but there are criminals involved and a mom looking out for her daughter.
Margaret sat alone in the vet’s examining room, clutching the empty cat carrier the way she’d held Mr. Kim in his blanket. All over now. Death was so simple, so complete. Why did she still fear it when it seemed the most natural thing in the world? The young technician came back into the room carrying a pamphlet. She began explaining the different options for pet memorials. If Margaret wanted to be certain that she’d have only Mr. Kim’s ashes in the urn, instead of commingled pet remains, the cost would be far greater.
“Please, I can’t think of this now.” Margaret’s tears flowed with a will of their own. She hated crying, had hated crying ever since she was a child, but she felt powerless to stop.
Flustered, the technician fetched the vet. He was a grey-haired, soft-spoken man about Margaret’s age. Gently he touched her arm. “There’s no rush. You can let us know later today.”
She accepted the tissue he handed her and wiped her cheeks.
“Mr. Kim was lucky to have you,” the vet went on. “Medicine couldn’t help him anymore. You did the right thing, Margaret. I would have done the same for my cat. Think of it as the last kindness you could do for him. Would you like some help getting home?”
“No, no, I’ll be fine. I didn’t drive today because…because I knew I’d be upset. But I’m better now. I’ll be fine.” She stood up, cat carrier in hand, and left.
The outside world hit her in a torrent of light and noise. The cold spring wind cut through her red wool coat, but she didn’t head for home. Instead she crossed the road and boarded the streetcar heading east. She took a single seat by the window, balancing the empty carrier on her knee, thinking of the long ride ahead. Ultimately it would be a futile journey like all the others, but she banished the nattering advice of the social workers from her mind.
The street car lumbered away from her familiar middle-class surroundings. Tall trees and brick homes gave way to the glass and stone of the business district where her late husband once worked. Later, beyond the city core, the street car plunged past bleak concrete buildings and dirt-filled yards. She watched for a particular configuration of pawn shops, pay-day loan arrangers and dollar stores. When it appeared, it startled her though nothing on the street had changed. She pushed the request stop button, breathed to calm herself, and stepped down from the street car into a dusty, seemingly deserted world. I shouldn’t have worn my red coat, she thought. I stand out enough as it is. She slung the strap of her purse over her shoulder and pressed the bag against her side with the cat carrier. Walk with purpose, she thought and crossed over the road to the sidewalk. Don’t make eye contact. If anyone talks to you, don’t answer whatever you do.
Jennifer’s apartment building had acquired a new patina of graffiti. Margaret recognized a black scrawl next to the entrance. A gang tag, one of the social workers had told her. The lock on the glass entrance doors was broken, as it had always been. The same sharp odour of mildew and sewage lingered inside the lobby. The battered metal mailboxes had deteriorated though – only a handful had doors now.
“Those boys smashed my mail box.” An elderly lady sat hunched in a wheelchair by the elevator, her shapeless feet shoved into a pair of fuzzy blue slippers. “Now I gotta sit here so’s I can get my welfare check. Damn super won’t do a thing. Damn cops won’t come here no more. Them gangbangers do what they like and the hell with everybody else.”
Margaret had to lean past her to push the button for the elevator. “Can I see your cat?” The old woman craned her neck to peer through the carrier door. “I can’t see it. Hold still so I can see. I can’t see nothing. Where’s your cat?”
“He’s hiding,” Margaret shifted the carrier to her other hand. Hurry up, hurry up, she urged the elevator. She heard the front door whoosh open. Two men strode in. The husky, shorter one wore a black leather jacket heavy with metal studs. The other much taller man had stretched a strange rubber mask over his head. The old lady clutched Margaret’s arm. “That’s not the boys. Don’t know those two.”
Margaret’s finger ached from pressing the call button. Had those men followed her in from the street? She hadn’t noticed them outside, but then she wasn’t equipped to.
“Hey, lady, you’re trespassing, you know that?” the short one said. Margaret stared at the closed elevator door, heart pounding.
“Go away,” the old woman shouted. “I want to see her cat.” The tall one stepped closer. Margaret swallowed. She saw now that his mask wasn’t a mask at all: elaborate black and red tattoos covered his face and naked skull.
“Hey, you deaf? We’re talking to you,” he said.
“I don’t see it.” The old woman rattled the carrier. “Take it out and show me.”
The tattooed man sneered. “That’s right, go ahead. Take it out. Show us, too.”
The elevator arrived. Margaret bolted inside and hit the button for the fifth floor. Nothing happened. She stared helplessly at the men through the open door. “Leave me alone. I just want to see my daughter. She lives here. Please, leave me alone.”
Slowly the elevator door began to move. The old lady stared at Margaret through the closing gap. “Is your cat a ghost?”
“Yes, yes, that’s right. My cat is a ghost.” Finally, blessedly, the door closed. The elevator jerked into motion. Margaret collapsed against the back wall, her face running with sweat. Thank God, she thought. Oh, thank God. The elevator creaked up to the fifth floor and shuddered to a stop. A fresh current of fear rushed through her. What if those men followed her upstairs? She scratched the plastic side of the cat carrier in her haste to force her way out past the sluggish door into the hall. She ran down the ragged carpeting to Jennifer’s apartment. Jennifer looked pale and sweaty when she opened her door to Margaret’s frantic knocking. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Please, Jenny, can I come in?”
“Sure, fine, whatever.” The girl vanished into the gloom of the hall.
Margaret slipped inside and made sure the door was locked behind her. She set down the cat carrier and unbuttoned her coat, waiting for her heart to slow, breathing in the familiar, pungent odour of marijuana, sweat and decayed food that was as much a part of Jennifer and Paul’s apartment as its four walls. The cramped living room was its usual filthy shambles except for a large glass tank resting on the battered coffee table. Jennifer sat slouched on the torn sofa beside it, dark blond hair greasy, her pink track suit stained. Margaret sat down beside her.
“Please be careful about opening the door, Jenny. Promise me you’ll always ask who it is first. It was only me this time, but there were some strange people downstairs…”
“God, how long did it take you to start this time? One second, that’s all! Just tell me what you want and get out.” Jennifer kicked the coffee table with her bare foot.
She should have noticed. The apartment was mercifully silent. Other times she couldn’t make herself heard over the thump of rap music and the incessant ringing of Paul’s cell phone. He used a ridiculously incongruous ring tone, the Teddy Bears Picnic. If you go out in the woods today…
“Uh-huh.” Jennifer rubbed her dry lips.
“I’ve heard that iguanas are very intelligent,” Margaret pressed on. “You can teach them tricks and things. Where do you put its food and water?”
“Paul says it can go months without anything.”
Margaret doubted that was true. “When is Paul coming back?”
“I don’t know. I thought you were him. I can’t stand this waiting around. He said he’d be right back.” Jennifer scratched her bare forearm. It was dotted with what looked like dark insect bites. Oh, God, Margaret thought. Many of the sores were crusted and oozing. She dared not confront Jennifer about them, at least not yet. Instead she studied the lizard, its wise wizened face and strangely human limbs. “Your pet’s back leg looks twisted.”
“It got broken.”
“How did that happen?”
“It just happened. Stop asking questions. That’s all you ever do, ask questions.”
Jennifer and Paul had smashed an aquarium during one of their fights. Margaret remembered finding the fish stuck to their carpeting like pale, gelatinous jewels. The iguana stirred. Its hind leg flailed and slipped off the tree branch. “I’m worried about your pet,” she said. “It seems to be in pain. It can’t move its leg properly. Why don’t I take it to my vet and let him take a look?”
“I’ll pay for the vet.”
Margaret shouldn’t have mentioned money. The social workers had warned her never to mention money in front of Jennifer.
“How much would you pay? How much have you got with you?” Jennifer’s eyes shone with a frightening hunger.
Margaret fumbled in her purse for her wallet. “Here’s fifty dollars. That’s all I have with me.”
“Fifty bucks? That’s it?” Jennifer snatched the bills and shoved them into the waistband of her sweatpants.
“That’s no help.”
“When was the last time you ate something?”
“I’m fine. Leave me alone.” Jennifer bounced off the sofa and ran over to the window. She parted the dusty slats of the venetian blind with her fingers to look out. “God, Paul, where are you? You said you’d be back right away.” How could Paul have such a hold on her daughter? He was years older, sickly thin from his life on the streets. He reminded Margaret of a furtive wet mole.
“How long has he been gone?” she asked.
“All night.” Jennifer chewed her thumb the way she used to in grade school. “He told me to sit tight and keep the door locked. That he’d take care of the problem.”
“Business.” She looked at Margaret. “If you really want to help, give me fifty thousand dollars.”
“What! Paul owes someone fifty thousand dollars? What happened?”
“He screwed up, OK? Happy now? Quit asking me questions. Since you don’t want to help me, get out.”
“Jenny, please. I don’t have fifty thousand dollars to give you. Even if I did, we both know it wouldn’t change anything. There will always be a next time with Paul, and a time after that.”
“Well, this time he’s dead. And I’m dead, too.”
“Jennifer! You know I’d give you everything I have, every cent, if it would get you out of …out of all this.”
“You’d love me to move back home with you, wouldn’t you? That’s why you came here today, isn’t it? You never stop trying. You’d do anything to get me away from Paul. Well, it’s never going to happen. I won’t leave Paul. I’m never leaving Paul.” She paced back and forth in front of the window, pausing every few seconds to look out.
“Give me your phone.” She held out her hand for it.
Margaret looked around. No land line. Paul’s cell phone was Jennifer’s only link to the outside world and he had taken it with him. “Give it to me!” Jennifer lunged for Margaret’s purse. She rummaged through it and pulled out the phone. Tossing aside the bag, she rushed into the bedroom, jabbing at the phone’s touch screen.
Margaret picked up her purse from where it had fallen. She sat listening to the click of the lizard’s claws on the tree branch as it fought to keep its balance. It stared at her through the glass, its dark eyes full of sorrow. What should I do? she thought. God help me, I don’t know what to do.
“Paul’s not answering.” Jennifer charged back into the living room, the phone in her fist. “His phone keeps going to voice mail. Why isn’t he answering?”
“Maybe…maybe he’s on the subway.” Or maybe he recognized my number and doesn’t want to answer, Margaret thought.
“I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking he took off. Well, he’d never leave me. He loves me. And I love him. He said he wants us to die together.”
The phone rang in Jennifer’s hand. “You see! That’s him. That’s his number.” She pressed the phone to her ear.
An instant later she dropped the phone as though it had scorched her hand. “It’s them. It’s those men. They want the money.” She collapsed on the sofa. “Where’s Paul? What’s happened to him?”
Hands shaking, Margaret retrieved the phone and ended the call. “Do those men know where you live? Answer me, Jennifer. Do they know where you and Paul live?”
“I don’t know. Paul’s real careful, I’m careful, but…”
Margaret’s throat had gone dry. “We need to leave. Right now. Go on, get your jacket.”
Jennifer shook her head. “No! I’m not leaving without Paul.”
“We can’t wait for him. Please, listen to me just this once.”
Jennifer didn’t move. She stared blindly at the lizard. How do I get through to her? Margaret thought. Oh, God, please help me. “Sweetheart, do you know why I came to see you today? Did you see the cat carrier? I came here because of Mr. Kim.”
“What about Mr. Kim?”
“I-I’m so sorry. Mr. Kim had a tumour. I kept him at home with me as long as I could, but he was so weak and miserable…I couldn’t bear to watch him suffer any longer. I took him to the vet this morning.”
“You put him to sleep. You killed him!”
“Jenny, that’s not fair. You know how much I loved Mr. Kim.”
“You liar. You killed him!” Jennifer buried her face in her hands, sobbing madly, gasping and gulping for air.
“Do you really believe I wanted him to die? Even the vet said I did the right thing.”
But Jennifer wasn’t listening. She cried desperately until her sobs subsided into a soft coughing and sniffling.
“What did the vet do with his body?” she asked.
“He’s keeping it at the clinic until I …until we decide what to do.”
“OK.” Jennifer wiped the tears off her face with the sleeve of her sweatshirt.
“I want to bury him at home. In the garden.”
“Yes, let’s do that. Let’s go get Mr. Kim.” Margaret touched her daughter’s shoulder. “And we’ll take your iguana with us and get its leg fixed.”
“OK.” Jennifer stood up and walked calmly into the bedroom.
Margaret collected the cat carrier from where she’d left it by the front door. She lifted the glass lid off the iguana’s tank and gently curled her hands around its body. To her surprise, its skin didn’t feel cold, but soft and dry. It didn’t resist when she lifted it out and slipped it into the carrier on top of Mr. Kim’s blanket.
“Weird cat.” Jennifer had returned, wearing Paul’s old leather jacket over her sweat suit. She threw Margaret a weak smile and picked up the cell phone from where it rested on the coffee table. They left the apartment and walked down the hall to the elevator.
Margaret pushed the call button. “There were two men downstairs when I came in. They scared me. If they’re still in the lobby, I’ll talk to them. I want you to pretend you don’t know me. Walk straight out of the building, run to one of the stores and use my phone to call the police. Can you do that, Jenny?”
Jennifer nodded. They rode down to the lobby in silence. The doors opened. Margaret nearly dropped the cat carrier. The two men were standing directly in front of the elevator, leaning over the old woman in her wheelchair. No way to push past them without a confrontation.
“Give me my check, you bastards,” the old woman shouted. She swiped at the brown envelope the tattooed man dangled out of her reach. “I told you which floor and which number, now give it to me. Give it to me!”
Margaret sensed Jennifer edging away from her. She took a deep breath and stepped forward. “What’s going on?”
“Bastards!” the old woman shouted again.
“Please, don’t tease her. She’s old.” Margaret watched Jennifer hurry past the wall with the broken mailboxes, her head down.
The short one shrugged. “Give it up, man. Give her the check.”
The tattooed man let the old woman snatch it from him. “That sure fixed your memory, didn’t it, you old bitch?”
“God’ll getcha. God’ll get all of you.” The old woman wheeled herself out of the lobby.
Margaret started toward the outside door, but the tattooed man seized her arm.
“Hey, lady, you’re rude, you know that?”
“Sorry, I-I didn’t mean to be. My cat’s sick. I have to take him to the vet.” She forced herself to stare directly into the man’s hideous face. “Would you like to see him?”
“Sure, show us the damn cat,” the short one said.
The tattooed man released his grip on Margaret. She held up the cat carrier so that he could look inside. She watched Jennifer swing through the outside doors.
“That’s not a cat, you crazy bitch,” he said. “You’re a freak, you know that?”
“You’re right,” she said. “You’re absolutely right. I’m crazy. And you’re right, it’s not a cat, it’s a lizard.”
Jennifer wasn’t running for help–she had pulled out the cell phone.
Margaret’s arms were shaking with the effort of holding the carrier. “My lizard is hurt. It needs to see a vet. Can I go now?”
Jennifer was punching numbers into the phone.
The short one smiled. “A lizard. That’s cool. I kind of like that.” He nudged the tattooed man. “Come on, leave her alone. We’ve got business upstairs.”
Margaret heard a faint, familiar ring tone when they shoved past her into the elevator:
If you go out in the woods today… The elevator door closed, choking off the rest of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Margaret rushed outside. She tore the phone away from Jennifer with her free hand and hurled it into the street.
The oncoming street car crunched it into splinters on the rails. “What did you do?” Jennifer cried. “You’re crazy!”
Margaret shouted and waved to get the driver’s attention, dragging Jennifer with her. Thankfully, he stopped. They climbed on board. Jennifer wiped her eyes and dug out one of the bills Margaret had given her to pay their fare. Margaret’s legs refused to hold her any longer. She collapsed into the seat behind the driver. She dared not look out the window for fear she’d see the men running after them. Jennifer slumped down beside her–she insisted on holding the carrier on her lap.
Margaret could scarcely breathe during their trip back into the city. Even when they reached the safety of downtown, her heart was beating like a wild thing. “Paul…” Jennifer said. “Why did those men answer? Where is he?”
“Paul can’t answer. He’s gone.”
“He can’t be.”
“Let’s think about Mr. Kim now. One thing at a time.”
Margaret closed her eyes and took her daughter’s hand. I’m doing the right thing, she thought. It’s the only thing I can do. And she wished someone would hold her the way she held Mr. Kim that morning.
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