Authors: Mary Willis Walker
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For my father, a lifetime devotee of the
fine art of reading in bed
Several of Nature’s People
I know and they know me
I feel for them a transport
But never met this Fellow
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing
And Zero at the Bone.
THE pointman waited until dusk to take the hunk of rotting meat out of the toilet tank where he had hidden it three days before. Raising the dripping bag, he caught a whiff of spoiled meat through the plastic. Yes, three days in the heat was perfect for aging a beef brisket to just the right putrescence. Lucky this place smelled so bad no one had noticed the stench.
He tied the bag to the left side of his belt to balance the one on his right and padded to the lavatory door. He eased the door open and looked through the gathering darkness over Bird Lake, past the huge brick reptile house toward the Phase II section. Amazing how quiet this place was with visitors locked out and animals confined to their holding cages for the night. He preferred it like this. Only he, the pointman, was at large, free finally to do what had to be done.
A quiver of pleasure rippled from his scalp to his toes. This first one was going to be so easy. Too easy. After the years of anticipation, the act itself might not be enough.
No matter. Pleasure wasn’t the point. Justice was the point. He had been training for this all his life and now, finally, the time was right. Nothing could go wrong. The time was auspicious—he liked that word—auspicious. It made his mouth water with anticipation for what was coming, the work of the night and dawn.
He stepped out into the open. The night watchman—that plump, pale, grinning fool—would be sitting at his station sipping coffee from his stainless-steel thermos. No sweat. No threat.
Wearing only black Reeboks, black spandex pants, and a black jersey, he moved soundlessly along the path. His good-luck piece, which had never failed him, even in the most desperate times, swayed on its cord under his shirt, stroking his chest, its scales catching a hair occasionally, like the caress of a woman with jagged fingernails.
As he neared the carnivora complex he sniffed the air, trying to separate Brum’s smell from the rest of the animal odors. A full hundred yards away, the sharp acidic scent filled his nostrils. Brum. It was the big male’s turn to spend the night outside. He would be ready. Just like the pointman, it was Brum’s nature to be ready for the kill.
“Opportunity’s about to knock on your door, brother,” he whispered, breaking from a walk into an easy lope. Approaching the high wire mesh fence that surrounded the quarter-acre exhibit, he spotted Brum, sprawled on his side, half-concealed behind an artificial boulder on the bank of the recycling stream.
As if he had been waiting, the tiger leapt to his feet and glided toward the fence on huge spongy paws. The last rays of the setting sun transformed each hair of his thick orange coat into a glowing electric wire. As he walked his nose seemed connected to the bag at the pointman’s waist by an invisible thread of scent. When he was a few feet from the fence, the tiger stopped and hissed through his yellowed fangs.
The pointman jumped the guardrail to approach closer to the high fence. “Smell good, don’t I, Brum-boy? You ready for me? You better be.” He pressed his palm against the fence and felt a ripple in his groin when the tiger rubbed his body along the other side of the fence, dragging his coarse fur against the pointman’s skin.
Seeing the tiger at twilight like this, against the backdrop of grass and trees and rocks, it was easy to imagine away the fence and picture Brum as a wild tiger. A solitary hunter in the forest at night. Senses honed by hunger, forced by the void at his center, the tiger would scent the prey and his stomach would shudder at the smell of warm blood pumping beneath thin skin. He would hold a crouch, listening, his small rounded ears twitching. Here the pointman laughed aloud, remembering he had read that Indonesian hunters shaved their nostrils because they were certain tigers could hear a man’s breath rustling through his nose hairs. He believed it. Brum would hear every breath, every blink, every tremble. And slowly, silently, eyes riveted on the prey, he would creep into range.
Then would come the best part, the part the pointman had imagined so often, asleep and waking. He saw it now: the cat launching his body into the air, hooking his claws deep into the flesh of the right flank, pulling the shrieking prey to the ground. And then … the tiger’s teeth knowing just what to do. Like a guillotine falling, his four yellowed saber teeth clamping shut on the throat, cracking the neck. Merciful and elegant. Maybe too merciful.
While the pointman stood dreaming, Brum paced the high fence, staring at the bag. When the man started to walk again, Brum glided along beside him, only thin strands of wire separating them.
At the door concealed behind the fake rock wall, the pointman reached inside his jersey for the cord around his neck. His good-luck piece. He pressed his thumb against one of the sharp fangs until a single drop of blood beaded up. Then he gripped the whole rattlesnake head in his fist and held it tight for a few seconds.
He pulled his keys from their secure place inside his pants and unlocked the door, his breath coming faster now. Inside the keepers’ area, he relocked the door, nodding at Brum’s empty holding cage.
His hand trembled as he unlocked the door to the tiny closet-sized room where it would all happen. He stepped inside and locked the door behind him. Good zoo procedure. Always.
Then he sat on the floor of the tiny room, his back propped against the wall, and studied the steel door leading out to the exhibit. It was several inches thick, locked and bolted, with an observation window at eye level. The window was made of heavy wire-reinforced glass, two and one-half feet square—just big enough—he’d measured carefully.
He sighed with pleasure and untied the two plastic bags from his belt. He worked out the knots in the first bag and reached in to pull out the brisket. The slimy feel on his fingers made him grunt and the stench prickled his sinuses. It was intolerable. Simultaneously he sneezed and heaved the offending bloody slab against the metal door. It hit with a smack and fell to the floor.
The pointman couldn’t hear him, but he knew for a certainty that Brum was there, right on the other side of that door, probably with his nose pressed to the crack underneath. “Hungry, big boy? You cats like your meat at blood-heat, don’t you? Well, just wait and see what I have for you. It’s what you’ve been wanting all your life.”
From the other bag, he took a pair of soft cotton gardening gloves, a piece of beef jerky, and a brand-new pair of wire-cutters.
With his front teeth he grabbed the jerky and pulled hard to rip off a piece. He could take his time now. He had all night and very little work to do.
He wanted to make it last as long as possible.
IT would be Higgins, that wretched pug, yipping his way into her dreams.
Through closed lids, Katherine Driscoll felt the first light filtering through the east window of her bedroom. If she kept her eyes squeezed shut, maybe she could regain that blessed state of unconsciousness for just a few more minutes.
But no. The other boarders were joining in now—first the ancient basset hound with her basso-profundo baying. Then Jack Reiman’s German shepherd with his wolflike howling, and then the rest, sixteen of them at last count, all joined the cacophony. And the peacocks from their roost on the kennel roof screeched their accompaniment.
She crossed her arms over her eyes and pulled her knees up tight. Always before, the entire eleven years she had lived in this house, she had relished getting up in the morning. She loved the rosy color of the early morning light. She loved feeding the animals and planning her schedule for the day. She loved being her own boss.
But not now. God, how could she cope with everything? The problems were too much. After all the years of coping alone, finally, just too much. Chaos was closing in on her.
She rolled over on her stomach and buried her head in the pillow. What was it she had been dreaming? If she kept her eyes closed and her mind empty, she might recapture one thread of it, and that thread she could grab on to and use to pull up the rest of the dream. If she could only have a few more minutes of peace.
Awake, there was that long list of dreads to face up to.
Listening to the edge of pain in Higgins’s incessant yapping, she allowed one of the minor dreads to float to the surface—Higgins. His owners, two elderly sisters who were her closest neighbors and best boarding customers, were returning from their annual trip to Europe. Today. They had sent Higgins a postcard from Rome promising to fetch him on their way home from the airport. There was a postscript for Katherine reminding her to make sure he got plenty of exercise.
She could visualize their reunion now. The two hulking sisters would arrive in their yellow Cadillac, their faces puckered up, ready to ask if their little Higgins wiggins had had a nice visit with his Aunt Katie. But instead, they would look at their beloved pet in horror and demand to know what had happened to him. And then she would have to explain the bizarre business of the garbage bag and the beer bottle. They were going to be horrified. Well, could she really blame them? When they were paying twice the going rate for Higgins to have extra-special, personal attention.
Now that she had admitted one of the demon-dreads, the others seeped under her eyelids with the morning light and began to swarm the inside of her head. Her body clenched in defense.
But then a single sound made the muscles relax and the demons flee: Ra’s nails clicking on the bare oak floor. Eyes still closed, she listened to the dog’s approach—the heavy breathing, the jingle of his tags; then his moist, pungent breath tickled her face and his cold nose poked into the hollow of her neck. She inhaled the warm earthy odor of him and reached out her fingers to bury them in his thick coat.
Finally she lifted her head and opened her eyes. Taking his head in both hands, she kissed the golden retriever on his long muzzle and swung her legs out to sit on the edge of the bed. He rested his head on her knees and gazed up with wide-set almond eyes. She sighed with pleasure at the weight of the big head.
“Dual Champion Radiant Sunrise’s Amun-Ra—son of champions, sire of champions—need to go out for a tinkle, baby?” she said.
In response, the dog lifted his head and pranced in place, his signal from puppyhood that he wanted to go outside. Katherine rose and padded barefoot toward the kitchen, with the dog high-stepping beside her.
She measured some coffee into a filter and plugged in the percolator. While she did it, she glanced out the window across the yard to the kennel—twenty-five rectangular dog runs under a long shingle roof. Her boarders were pacing their enclosures, impatient to be fed. Higgins, still yapping, was hurling his plump body against the chain link. Katherine hoped his stitches would hold.