METRO ZOO by David B Harrington
As soon as I saw her I knew she was one of them. I could tell by the way she carried herself across the busy intersection and strolled confidently past the old theater, blending in effortlessly with the lunchtime crowd. Like the rest of her kind, she was a beautiful, yet subtle creature who probably led a solitary existence with very little social interaction to speak of except what would only be necessary to fit in comfortably with her natural surroundings. You see, I learned a long time ago, these types of creatures aren’t really that difficult to recognize, you just had to know what to look for. She glanced over her shoulder at me as she whisked by the Gothic cathedral. A colorful, carefree chameleon casually going about her business. I knew it wouldn’t be long before the animal games began.
From my hotel room on the 7th floor I had a clear view of the park blocks, the fountain, the carousel, and all the partygoers gathered in the cafes and nightclubs below. I watched with vague interest as a steady stream of nightlifers shuffled in and out of the shops and restaurants that line the boulevard. That’s when I spotted her sitting all alone sipping a tall drink in front of one of the fancy cafes. I stood by the window and watched her for a few minutes. She turned her head, looked straight up at me and grinned. I quickly closed the curtains, threw on my overcoat and rushed out of the room to the elevators. I dashed through the lobby, out the front doors across the park and busy boulevard. But she must have known I was coming for her because when I got to the cafe, she was gone. Her half-empty glass smudged with lipstick still stood on the table. There was a small group of yuppies hanging out drinking beer nearby. I turned around and said, “Excuse me, but did any of you happen to see which way the woman who was sitting here a minute ago went?”
Clearly annoyed that a complete stranger should have the gall to interrupt their little get together, one of them pointed in the direction of the park and said, “She went that away, buddy.”
But that was impossible. I had just cut through the park a moment earlier. I would have run right into her. “Are you sure?” I asked with uncertainty.
“Yeah, I’m sure.”
For the next fifteen minutes I scoured the park blocks, searching for her in vain. For I knew she had vanished once again. Back to my suite I went, confused and exhausted, and realized that in my haste I had forgotten to lock the door. I gently pushed it open and peeked inside. The room was dark and empty except for my suitcase which still lay unpacked on the bed. It was then I noticed my phone extension flashing red. The front desk must have called while I was out. I took the elevator down to the lobby and marched right up to the night clerk on duty and said, “Good evening. I’m Mr. Strauss in room 707. I believe you called me about something…?”
“Yes sir, I did,” she said pleasantly. “Somebody left you a letter while you were out.” She reached down and handed me an envelope with my name and suite number written on it.
“But no one even knows I’m here,” I said in a puzzled tone. “Did they leave their name or anything?” I said as I unsealed the envelope. It was a ticket to the Metro Zoo and it was dated for the following day.
“No name. Sorry. She did say she’d see you tomorrow though. A secret admirer perhaps…?”
I chuckled and said, “Tell me, miss. Is this your handwriting by chance?”
“No sir, it is not. Your name and suite number were already on the envelope when she handed it to me.”
“I see. And what exactly did this mystery woman look like, if you don’t mind me asking?”
“No, not at all. Um, let’s see. She was tall and slender. Exceptionally pretty, probably in her late twenties or early thirties, I would say. Very pleasant.”
It had to be the girl from the cafe. Who else could it possibly be? “Interesting,” I mumbled. “One more thing. Do you happen to know if this secret admirer of mine is also a guest here at the hotel?”
“I don’t think so, Mr. Strauss. I don’t recall ever seeing her around before.”
“Well, thank you very much. You’ve been most helpful.” I wondered if I was being lured into some kind of trap. But then I thought, what could possibly happen at a crowded zoo? I went back to my room and watched TV for awhile before nodding off.
The following morning I hopped the 10 o’clock shuttle bus to the Metro Zoo. It was another beautiful sunny day and when I arrived there was already a long line of visitors waiting to get through the gates. I scanned the crowd to see if I could spot her waiting for me, but there was no sign of her anywhere. Inside the plaza, the gift shop and concession stands were packed full of young kids and moms and dads pushing baby strollers. I had to fight my way through a group of elementary school children just to get past the Primate House.
My first stop was the African Safari then on to a new exhibit that had recently opened featuring several species of crocodilians from three different continents. The enclosure was dark, muggy, and extremely uncomfortable like an Amazon rain forest. But the giant reptiles were quite impressive so I hung around in there for a bit. Most of the crocs and gators were just kind of suspended in limbo with their eyes protruding above the murky water watching the little children come and go, wondering which ones would be staying for lunch.
By the time I got out of there my clothes were drenched with perspiration and the sun was blinding my eyes. To my relief I spotted a vacant bench where I could sit down and cool off for a few minutes. As I crossed the path for the sanctuary of the shade, a scrawny looking boy, probably nine or ten years old, suddenly plowed right into me with a big wad of cotton candy in his mouth. I reached out and grabbed his arm to prevent him from falling to the pavement. “Oopsie daisy! Are you alright, kid?” He was wearing dingy khakis and an old tattered jacket. I stooped down until I was eye level with the boy and said, “You really must be more careful and watch where you’re going from now on.”
“Sorry, mister,” he muttered. He seemed distracted and looked right through me. Something else had caught his attention. “Why is that lady staring at you…?”
I spun around to see who he was talking about, but there wasn’t anybody there except a couple of maintenance workers and a vendor pawning souvenirs. “What lady…?” I said, but he had already darted off in the opposite direction. Let the animal games begin, I thought.
Behind me was the Aviary, and next to that the Reptile & Amphibian Complex and Conservation Center. She could have easily slipped into either one without me noticing. I searched the Aviary first, but she was definitely not in there. The Reptile & Amphibian Complex was a hexagon-shaped structure with lots of exotic plants and rows of terrariums full of frogs, lizards and snakes. There was even a separate enclave for venomous snakes where only children accompanied by an adult were allowed, so I checked in there, but nothing doing. I walked around full circle and still didn’t see her anywhere. I knew she was watching me from somewhere, I could feel it in my veins.
Weary of her childish games, I started down the path toward the gates when I heard a woman’s voice say, “Leaving so soon, Danny…?” I turned and there she was, my beautiful elusive butterfly, just sitting there all by herself on the bench with her legs crossed all ladylike, smiling up at me with that malevolent grin. She nonchalantly lowered her sunglasses and our eyes collided. Let me tell you, she was drop-dead gorgeous in her green and yellow sundress and high heels. She had curly blond hair with pink and orange streaks, sapphire-blue eyes, and a black shawl draped over her shoulders.
I cautiously walked toward her. She watched with amusement as I approached, luring me closer and closer. I should have run away right then and there, but I was drawn in by her hypnotic gaze. I sat down right next to her, never turning my eyes away. I could feel the hair on the back of my neck bristle, tickling my skin with a tingly sensation. "Do I know you...?"
“Would you like to…?” she asked sardonically.
“I know who you are.”
“Oh, do you now…? Who am I?”
“What the hell do you want from me?” I snapped, already growing agitated by her carefree demeanor.
“Your undivided attention, what else.”
“Is that so? You don’t own me. I’m not some kind of puppet you can just manipulate anytime you please,” I said vindictively. “So unless you have some immediate business with me, I suggest you stop spying on me and leave me alone!”
She uncrossed her legs, looked me straight in the eye and said, “My, my, my, Danny! There’s no need to get all testy. That's no way to treat a lady on the first date.”
“Stay away from me, I’m warning you, or else I’ll…”
“Or else you’ll what? Call security? Cage me like a wild animal? Have me removed from the zoo on such a beautiful day? That would be such a shame. Come on, Danny boy. You can do better than that. You oughta know by now, I don’t frighten away that easily.” She reached inside her snakeskin purse, pulled out a makeup kit and mirror and started painting her lips, ignoring me as if we had never had this little conversation.
I stood up furiously and said, "That's it! We're done here. I’m leaving now. Goodbye!”
“See you later, Danny. It was nice meeting you too,” she cackled.
I turned to walk away. “Stay away from me, do you understand? I mean it!” But she just smirked and continued applying her lipstick. I checked to see if she was following me, but the bench was empty. She had evaporated into the crowd without a trace.
When I got back to the hotel I noticed my suitcase had been moved. There was a clean stack of towels in the bathroom and the carpet had been vacuumed. The maid must have come in and refreshed the room while I was out. Tired and hungry, I decided to take a quick shower and a short nap before heading down to the restaurant for dinner. I grabbed a set of clean clothes from my bag and went into the bathroom. In the mirror I saw something crawl out of my bag and slither across the floor. I stepped out onto the carpet and a creature, which can only be described as the cross between a cobra and a millipede with hundreds of tiny fuzzy feet and antennas, suddenly lunged up at me, lashing its forked tongue and snapping its monstrous mandibles as it flew through the air toward my frightened face. I ducked and the creature slammed against the wall with a deafening crash and started hissing. With my back against the wall, I slowly crept toward the door in hopes of sneaking out into the hall and making a run for it. The creature coiled up into a ball, poising itself to strike again. It started to close in on me when the phone on the nightstand rang. I picked up one of my shoes and hurled it as hard as I could, knocking the receiver off the hook. Bullseye! The receiver tumbled off the cradle and the clerk’s concerned voice crackled through the speaker, calling out to me. “Send help!” I shouted. The creature retreated and scurried underneath the bed. I rushed back into the bathroom and barricaded myself against the door. I heard the creature slam hard up against the door several times, then it stopped and everything got quiet. A few moments later the phone rang again. How was that even possible?
After what seemed like an eternity, I heard somebody banging on the door. “Mr. Strauss, are you in there…? It’s hotel security. Is everything alright?”
“Yes, I’m here! But there’s a snake loose in my room and I’m trapped in the bathroom. Please hurry!” I pleaded.
“Alright, stay calm. I’m coming in!”
I heard him unlock the door and enter the room. I cracked open the bathroom door and peeked around the corner. The creature was still under the bed. I stepped out of the bathroom with just a towel wrapped around my waist. I must have looked totally ridiculous standing there half naked as white as a ghost. “Um, are you alright, sir…?”
“Yes, I’m fine. Just a bit shaken. Now I insist you get me out of here at once!”
“Yes, of course. I’ll get you another room right away. Please follow me, sir. I’ll come back for your bag in a moment.” I tip-toed over to the door, staying as far away from the bed as possible and hurried out into the hallway. He escorted me to a vacant suite just down the hall. “Please wait here while I notify the front desk and retrieve your bag. And don’t worry, I’ll check your bag thoroughly to make sure it is safe.” He returned with my bag fifteen minutes later and I crawled into bed.
As I checked out the next morning, I was pleasantly surprised when the clerk issued me a full refund for my two night’s stay and apologized for all the inconvenience. I hailed a cab to the train station and arrived about a half an hour early. I had a little time to kill before my train was due to depart, so I picked up the phone and dialed the hotel.
“Marquis Hotel, Valerie speaking. How may I help you?”
“Yes, I would like to speak with security please.”
“Certainly. And who may I ask is calling?”
“Oh, Mr. Strauss! I thought I recognized your voice. Let me put you through to security now. Please hold.” (sleepy elevator music)
“Good morning, Mr. Strauss! Are you home already?”
“No, of course not. I’m calling from the train station.”
“Is everything OK, sir…?”
“Yes, everything is fine.”
“Good! What can I do for you?”
“Well, I was just wondering. Did you search the room where I was staying after I left?”
“Yes, I did. In fact, I just finished up a short time ago.”
“Really? Did you happen to find anything unusual?”
“Well, Mr. Strauss, as a matter of fact I did. Underneath the bed I discovered what appears to be some kind of odd-looking snakeskin.” He paused for a moment then said, “As a procedure, we also reviewed the surveillance footage for the 7th floor and the only other person coming and going in and out of room 707 yesterday was the housekeeper.”
Exasperated, I grabbed my suitcase and boarded the waiting train, anxious to get home. As it pulled away I glanced out the window and there she was, my colorful chameleon, just standing on the platform waving and smiling up at me with that malevolent grin of hers. There was nothing I could do. I watched her gradually fade into the background as the train accelerated and sped off down the tracks.