10 - A Man About a Dog
Case of the Partially Missing Barber
The passages within the walls of the Palace of Mother were narrow, winding, and in many places… miniature. Uncomfortably so. One of Kowalski’s few virtues was his height - an astounding two-point-two-five-seven millimetres - which turned traversing them into exercise he could ill afford. He kept his whinging to a stoic minimum however, if just because his manly pride was already under pressure from the bat-wielding lunatic creeping along in front of him.
Lou was her name, unfortunately, and she struggled with the cost-efficient ceiling nearly as much as he did. Of course, she hadn’t been hit by a truck and a bat in such close proximity that a truck full of bats could have saved his concussion from déjà vu. He felt that afforded him some points in whatever imaginary competition was keeping score. Every now and then she would scowl at him over her shoulder, her stubby cigar teetering recklessly out of her mouth, as if wary of him and his lecherous eyes.
Maybe he should tell her he was only into women.
Conversely, Berice was the perfect height for the tunnels - almost as if they’d been built for an army of prepubescent maids and minions. She would keep disappearing into the distance or around a corner, only to be found waiting patiently in one of many cosy nooks set snugly into the walls. Each time she would emerge from a bed of frilly cushions or enormous bean bags with a sigh, and be off again to the next undoubtedly comfortable cubbyhole with no thought spared for Kowalski’s persecuted legs. He eyed those nooks and thought mutinous thoughts.
He never dared to stop though. He got the distinct impression that what they were doing was against all sorts of rules that were, presumably, scrawled on a wall somewhere in a variety of coloured crayon. At one point he caught sight of the back of a new girl beyond where Berice reclined on a duvet. She seemed to be leaving despite having not passed himself or Lou where they crawled, the implication of which was obvious - she’d been turned away.
Berice was keeping him a secret.
On closer inspection of the nooks he noticed something even more unsettling. Narrow flaps had been cut into the wall of each nook at the perfect height for a child to peek through. To keep an eye on the unsuspecting public, he guessed. Hopefully there were no bathrooms on the other side.
It was in one of these nooks that Berice finally let him rest. He collapsed unceremoniously and a little ungratefully into the fluffy pile of stuffed animals without a care for Lou or what she thought. She could bench press a flame thrower for all it mattered, as long as it didn’t stop him snuggling up to the pink bear with a velvet heart stitched into its belly.
His respite didn’t last long, however. A rainbow parade of stuffed animals showered up from where Berice was digging, burying him in a pleasant world of fluff where no-one wanted to kill him. That, too, ended sooner than he would have liked, when he heard a clank and a creak and light poured into the previously gloomy nook.
“Come on,” said Berice in an urgent whisper, before she disappeared through a small hole in the side of the nook. More crawling, yay, thought Kowalski, who nonetheless swam over to it and through before Lou so as to avoid any further accusatory glares. He was of the disturbing but unprovable opinion that she’d gotten some kicks in while he’d been unconscious, something that being branded a pervert might encourage a live encore of.
Once his head was through, Lou gorged her eyes on his washboard buttocks. The way his hips swayed just that little bit when he slipped and jarred his elbow stoked a fever inside of her, an electric thrill. She could barely keep her antennae from quivering now that she was alone, and her whole impressively aloof facade threatened to crumble around her. Maybe if she flexed a bit more the next time she lifted something heavy, she might finally catch his attention.
She limped over to the tiny door, careful to keep her weight off the toe she’d stubbed in his ribs.
Kowalski was not prepared for the bright light of the hallway outside, nor the wonderful feeling of being able to stretch his back. Like a long lost lover it was, or so he imagined. A small hand slid into his and nearly wrenched him off his feet with an insistent tug. Shielding his watering eyes with his other hand, he followed Berice from out behind a potted plant and through the milling crowd of familiar homeless-ish ants.
They crossed the hall and snuck through a normal-sized door and suddenly the bright light transformed into an incandescent halo of pain. It was like staring into the sun. He was staring into the sun he realised, so he averted his eyes and thought of ice cubes and paracetamol. Berice had brought him outside for some reason, and as his eyes adjusted he could make out something coming to kill him.
A huge, slobbering termite was lumbering towards him, chittering for blood. His hand twisted painfully as Berice spun it around his back, and Kowalski knew he’d been betrayed. Outsmarted by a child, of all things. Just how many people did Spelter have in his pocket? He remembered back to the upstanding, salt of the earth janitor at the morgue, a simple man who was just trying to make it through the day doing his thankless job, and his last thoughts were for the poor soul who would be scraping ragged bits of Kowalski out of the fence.
There was a fence between him and the termite. Lou appeared at his side with her bat on one shoulder, completely nonchalant and, he could tell by the subtle glance from the corner of her eye, silently judging. Maybe if he got her to hit him again, it might knock his brain back into the right place. The termite hit the fence and he felt Berice flinch. It clawed and gnawed at the metal bars as if they were made out of little girl, but there was no getting through. Once that fact was obvious, she ducked around from behind Kowalski and stuck her tongue out at the drooling beast.
With freshly calibrated eyes he looked around at a vast zoo, nestled inside an atrium so massive he didn’t think it were possible. They were still inside the palace, but the floor was entirely covered in dirt and more varieties of animal droppings than you could poke a stick at. Here and there were pens containing termites, aphids, a family of fleas, and a hundred other collections of animals from parts unknown. Great winged flies in cages dangled from poles, and in the distance he could see a ladybug ranch.
What was oddly missing, however, were the visitors. There were next to no ants anywhere in the zoo, only a peppering of adult armed guards to keep watch and some clumps of very frightened-looking young maids on errands. It made no sense, because on just the other side of the wall there were hundreds of downtrodden ants that would figura-literally kill to get into what was without a doubt the best stocked zoo in the city.
And they didn’t even know it existed.
One of the guards along the wall was eyeing him suspiciously, so at a yank from Berice they beelined in the other direction. Despite the seemingly clandestine nature of their journey, and him being aware that you can’t spell clandestine without ‘silent’ - or ‘candles’ for that matter - he just had to ask, “Since when does Mother have her own private zoo?”
Lou spat on the dirt, but Berice had the compunction to look at least a little sheepish. “Technically, it’s a menagerie. And Mother doesn’t get out much, not with all the, um, baby making. So she brought the animals to her. It helps her relax, and she deserves a break sometimes. Or don’t you agree?” She managed to sound offended by the end, and Kowalski had to remind himself that the only reason they were helping him was because they thought Mother’s life was at stake. They were not his friends.
If they found out he’d lied to them, it might be feeding time for whichever animal in here had the sharpest teeth and the most resilient bowels.
It took them another couple of minutes of walking-like-they-owned-the-place to reach a squat little stable on the edge of the ladybug ranch. Lou went up to the heavy looking door and swung it open with ease, her bulging arms straining both the fabric of her shirt and Kowalski’s waning confidence in his right to testosterone. Then, with a deep breath and a shiver, Berice strode confidently inside.
That left Kowalski locked in a staring match with Lou, whose indignant scowl he couldn’t hope to beat. Should he say something? Was she going to hit him with the bat again? Or maybe she’d prefer to use her fists this time. After a long silence, she surprised him by being the one to speak.
Was that a softening of her eyes? She opened her mouth-
He never found out what she had to say, because that was when Berice returned in a fluster. The younger girl immediately ushered Kowalski up to the door, and when he glanced back at Lou all he saw was the same fiery woman he had come to expect. If anything, she chewed on her cigar with renewed and angry vigour.
Berice pulled him down to her level, which gave him gut-wrenching flashbacks of the tunnels, and whispered conspiratorially, “The head zoologist is waiting inside. I had to tell them why you’re here. I’m sorry, I know I promised, but I had no choice,” she added primly when he narrowed his eyes. “Just get what you need - we’ll be waiting here to take you out of the palace when you’re done.”
“You’re not coming in?” he asked, more than a little confused. His honed detective mind told him that this head zoologist was going to be yet another a young girl of at most twelve, carrying around an attitude and, most likely, a tazer. But Kowalski had already been through Grenda, and how bad could anyone else really be?
“No,” she said quickly, as if there was nothing in the world she would like to do less. “You’ll see why. Mother provides.”
Now he was more than a lot confused. Regardless, she pushed him towards the door and he stepped into the musty stables. It smelled of freshly clipped grass and what could only be ladybug dung.
And inside was an eight year old boy.
"No," she said quickly, as if there was nothing in the world she would like to do less. "You'll see why."