Stiffly, Kelli inched her arms into her coat sleeves and shuffled off in search of bathroom, water, clothes, and host. In the hallway off the TV room, at the first of three closed doors, Kelli lucked into a bathroom. If luck was the word. The tiles gritted cold and sticky under her bare feet, and the toilet was a fright. Kelli held her breath through a stab at fixing her smeared makeup and smoothing her bristling French braid. She got out of there fast.
Sounds of snoring led her to the second door, which she opened a crack. There on the bed, sprawled skinnily under the sheets and looking appallingly young without his glasses on, was Mr. Wonderful. Under his rusty mop of white-boy dreadlocks, he had the complexion of a spottily-glazed delft pitcher. Everyone had dazzled in the murk of the bar last night; the daylight disappointment, Kelli knew, would cut both ways. Ruing her own bony bones and anemic-ginger hair and pasty skin, she sniffed to think that opposites had failed to attract. And that sniff got her puzzling at the absence of alcohol fumes: the air wafting out of that bedroom was stuffy and sour, yes, but not boozy. Hadn't Mr. Wonderful been at least as pickled as she was? Wouldn't he wake with a hangover to rival hers?
But Kelli ditched these riddles in her relief at spotting (in a pile on the carpet next to a condom wrapper) her purse and pantyhose, her undies and bra, and the rhinestoned black satin peep-toe pumps and little black dress on which she'd splurged yesterday after work with the help of a smirking shopgirl in a Union Street boutique. Kelli wobbled in on tiptoe and scooped up her belongings, tossed another glance at her funky charmer mired in his slumbers, and closed the door. Back in the TV room, she was hardly in the mood to doll up--the pantyhose were a challenge, snags galore, and the bra felt oddly sprung--but a whiff of party still clung to the dress and shoes once she had them on. Thus attired, Kelli couldn't help feeling a tad delicious and aglow.
And thirsty. Hoping to find a sink unfilthy enough to lean over for a gulp of water, she padded down the hall to that third door, opened it on a topsy-turvy kitchen, and promptly gagged on a billow of thick, rancid heat. Coughing, she stepped inside and fanned the door for oxygen until a movement caught her eye down low on the floor where, she saw now, a crusty gray-black reptilian head the size of a penny loafer was peering up at her on a long wrinkled neck. Kelli screamed. The beast, a lizard of some kind with a bulldog body and a meaty armored tail, got up out of its crouch and came tromping toward her in a low-slung, swaying gait, its talons scraping the stained linoleum, its bluish-pink forked tongue reeling in and out of its muzzle. Kelli jumped into the hall and slammed the kitchen door shut and flattened back against it.
"Hey there," said Mr. Wonderful, giving her another jolt. He stood in his bedroom doorway tying a robe over his tongue-depressor physique. "You've met my other guest."
Kelli, her heartbeat stuttering, tried to remember Mr. Wonderful's name and prayed he'd remember hers. "Is that your pet?" she asked . . . Wendell. Wendell Ivy.
Looking amused, Wendell pushed up his glasses, their auto-tint lenses mottling in flux. "Nope."
Kelli resented his amusement. What if she'd woken up parched in the middle of the night and groped her way nude through the dark apartment and stumbled into a blind turf war with, with . . . "What is that thing?"
"Huh?" said Wendell with a hint of snap. He stepped forward into the hall and tilted his head and regarded Kelli through lowered lashes. "It's a white-throated monitor, a Tanzanian White-throated Monitor. Varanus albigularis, if you want to get technical."
His sudden snippiness baffled Kelli, but she had to give this Wendell credit: he appeared neither hung over nor particularly disillusioned, thank God, by her looks. And if this Godzilla-lizard was a fixture in his life--part-of-the-deal in any future dates and overnights--Kelli wanted to know. "And you say it's not yours?"
Wendell let out a heavy-hearted sigh and sagged against the wall. "Nah, but man is that a sad story. I'm in such a bind."
"Really? Oh no," said Kelli in a reflexive gush of sympathy. The kitchen door jounced against her spine with the skid and screech of claws. "What's the matter?"
"It's a long story. You probably gotta get going and all, stuff to do."
"Tell me. Please." Kelli moved away from the bucking door and took a step closer to Wendell, her hangover symptoms retreating. "I've got time."
"Well. . . ," said Wendell, still slumped against the wall; he jammed his hands into his robe pockets and crossed his ankles. "You know I work in an animal-rights agency, right? That's how you and I got chatting last night at the bar, about how we both love animals so much? There were, like, sparks."
Kelli had nothing against animals, but for the sake of conversation with this man who'd been listening to her and buying her mojitos and showing a real interest in her life, she might have exaggerated her ardor. She focused on the sparks. "Mm-hmm?"
His gaze glued to his toes, Wendell lifted a hand and scratched deep into his dreads. "The other day I bumped into this guy, and we talked, and the guy, uh, wondered aloud if I could find him a white-throated monitor as a birthday surprise for his kid. Turns out, a buddy of mine happened to have one for sale."
"That's a stroke of luck." Kelli took another step closer.
Wendell glanced up quickly, almost warily. "You think? My buddy's policy is 'No Returns,' yet now this customer-guy is insisting on a sneak delivery today by noon, in time for his son's birthday party-picnic-luau-whatever, or the deal is dead."
"Noon?" Kelli checked her watch. "That's an hour and fifteen minutes away. Is the delivery in the city? Do you have enough time?"
"I would have time, if my best friend Quaid hadn't phoned late last night--you were, um, passed out--and yammered on and on about how I absolutely had to go to his eleven-year-old daughter's flute recital today at noon because the girl's mother, Quaid's girlfriend, is once again off to who-the-fuck-knows-where, and there's no one to swell the ranks in the front row but Dad and Uncle Wendell."
"Oh, how unfortunate," said Kelli, overlooking the profanity. She'd played the flute herself as a girl, but couldn't recall if she'd mentioned it last night at the bar when Wendell had turned the topic from animals to music. "Especially for the young lady."
"Damn straight. And it straps me with a nasty choice. Either I skip the lizard delivery and attend the flute recital and get stuck with the cost and care of this mega-saur I'm totally unprepared for--you've had a look at my housekeeping skills, like, I'm way too busy for that shit--or I skip the flute recital and make the lizard delivery and crush my honorary niece on her big day."
Kelli was feeling bad for the dispossessed lizard, now, too, though she was impressed with Wendell in his dilemma--impressed that it was a dilemma. "Well, listen," she said. "Maybe I could help. What does this delivery entail?"
Wendell went, impossibly, paler. He jerked up out of his slouch and held up his hands as if to ward her off. "Wait, I wasn't fishing for pity, just doing a little venting."
Kelli straightened up tall in her heels and party dress. "I'd be glad to do it," she said, "provided you think I could manage. I don't know the first thing about--"
"All you'd have to do is drive the rental van. First I'd get our pal all crated up and--"
"How?" said Kelli. She'd expected a little more resistance, maybe some cajoling.
Wendell plunged his hands back into his pockets. "The trick is to leave the fridge open and chill him out good to slow him down--and meanwhile I could fix us a bowl of cereal, and maybe you could run out for coffee?--then I'll coax Big Boy into his crate, shove the crate into the elevator, and load up the van in the garage. Nothin' to it," he said, beaming. "And you'd really, really be helping me out--though I couldn't let you do it unless you agreed to take ten percent."
"Ten percent of what?"
"Of the, uh, two grand in cash this collector's going to hand over in an envelope."
"Goodness." Kelli batted the idea away. "You don't have to do that."
Wendell wagged his head sagely. "No. I insist. In fact, let's make it fifteen."
"No, no. Ten's . . . fine. If you must. But two thousand dollars for a lizard?"
"For this lizard, that's a bargain," said Wendell; he shook his head as if in awe of Kelli and her gameness, her spirit of adventure, her zest for life. "I'll probably still be at the flute recital when you get back here with the dough, but just hang out. We'll have dinner, if you're free."
Kelli didn't hesitate. "I'm free."
In the suburban quiet of the Stonestown neighborhood out by San Francisco State, Kelli backed the clunky old van (from Transcendental Rentals, she'd never heard of it) into the two-car driveway of the three-story pink fortress overlooking Lake Merced. "Here we are," she sing-songed to her crated passenger in back. Besides this address, Wendell had supplied zero information. Kelli cut the heater and the engine and hopped out into the late-morning chill under a patchy sky, clouds oozing along in melting whipped-cream rosettes. Shivering, she buttoned her coat up over her party dress (just legs and heeled pumps on view below the coat's hem), and dismissed the flattering notion that she looked anything like a stripper-gram.
As if on cue, the garage door behind the van hummed open, and Kelli turned to look. The garage was empty of cars. Hung across the back wall was a banner blazoned "Congrats West Coast/Hawaiian Regional Sales Champ Dusty Tanaka!!!"; beneath the banner, a squat tan man was setting down a golf bag rattling with clubs, his sweater a daisy yellow, his pants an Easter-egg tartan of pastel pink and green. The man came strolling up to Kelli with a grin that squinched his entire face, charting a Shar-Pei future. "Didn't expect the outfit," he said, eyeing her up and down.
Kelli kinked an eyebrow at him--"expect" had lost all meaning for her earlier this morning at approximately 10:22--and stalked around to the back of the van to unlock the rear doors. "You must be Dusty," she said.
Dusty dropped the grin. "Hey. No names."
Startled, Kelli shot a pointed glance at the sales-champ banner before opening up the van, the rear doors swinging outward with a piercing metallic scree-unch. Inside, taking up most of the transport compartment, was a well-ventilated wooden crate. A forked tongue flickered between its slats.
Dusty rubbed his palms together. "Ho-boy, there he is, our big kahuna. I parked the cars outside and cranked up the heat so's this rascal can stay in the garage until Junior gets his surprise. We'll move our scaly chum up to the kid's room later."
Kelli blinked at him. "You're bunking this beast with your son?"
"Oh, I got an architect designing a special cage. Lizard's just a baby right now, anyway, and the kid's thirteen going on eighteen and built like his dad. And he's always wanted a, um, a white-throated--one of these white-throated fellas." Dusty clapped his hands. "Let's hustle before Junior comes downstairs."
Kelli clambered into the back of the van, though she really wasn't dressed for this; she pushed the crate as Dusty pulled with much grunting and puffing. The crate teetered over the bumper, and the lizard thrashed inside, his curved black talons poking through the slats near Kelli's fingers. Kelli shifted her grip--lost it--and the crate slid hard against Dusty's thighs.
"Oof!" said Dusty, his scalp gleaming moist through his black crew cut. "Cardiac!"
Kelli scuttled out of the van and helped Dusty lower the crate and slide it with a deafening scrape over the concrete floor to the heater at the rear of the garage. She brushed the splinters out of her palms, aware of an amber eye sizing her up from between the crate's slats. Something told her it would be a short honeymoon. "Did Wendell give you any, you know, instructions?"
"Internet," said Dusty in a wheeze, blotting at his brow with his sweater cuff. He chuckled and shook his head. "From now on, just watch, the house'll be a regular Komodo à go-go."
Kelli torpedoed him with a look. "Did you say Komodo?"
Dusty sucked in his breath. "What?"
"As in dragon," said Kelli. "Those things with the toxic bite?" She bent toward the crate to take a keener look at its occupant. "Aren't they endangered?"
Dusty marched over to his golf bag, dug a large padded envelope out of the bundle of clubs, and strode back over to Kelli. "Here"--he pushed the envelope on her--"is the cash. It goes straight to Wendell." He herded her toward the driveway and reached for the panel of controls. "Bye, now." He pressed a button, and the garage door motored into a smooth descent, forcing Kelli to back up against the van's rear bumper. "No surprises," said Dusty, stooping to shout under the grumbling pink wall. "If there's trouble, there'll be trouble all around!" The garage door powder-puffed closed.
The envelope weighed way more than Kelli figured was right for two thousand dollars. Unless it was two thousand ones.
Faced with a waiting, toe-tapping, finger-drumming Wendell who at the door just now had not greeted her by name, Kelli produced Dusty's envelope out from under her coat with a coquettish flourish. "How was the flute recital?" she asked.
"Great," said Wendell, and held his palm out flat for the envelope. No mention, Kelli noticed, of dinner. Or of her ten percent.
Kelli extended the envelope toward him. The money. Why was she handing it over to this creep? Why why why? And with her sweetest jackass smile. As if she weren't going to burn her party dress and call Fish & Wildlife the instant she got home.
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