Robert Dibble marched past a bored llama and a disinterested gibbon and a weary water buffalo. The zoo was out of season and virtually deserted. A few visitors congregated around the big-ticket animals, but only a lone litter picking employee was in this corner of the facility. Just as Robert Dibble had hoped.
He was a slight man and one that was easily overlooked. Robert was wearing dark glasses, despite it not being particularly sunny. And he had his collar turned up, despite it not being particularly cold.
Robert entered the reptile house without breaking stride.
At the far end of the building was a large man staring at the contents of a glass enclosure. The man was wearing shorts and a brightly colored t-shirt, making him look a little like a giant-sized boy. Robert removed his sunglasses and approached the man with caution. He checked no one had entered after him — no, they were alone.
“I think this one’s dead,” said the man without once looking at Robert. The man tapped on the glass, but the lizard inside remained motionless. “Hasn’t moved once.”
“It’s ectothermic,” said Robert.
“Cold blooded,” said Robert, checking the door again. “It’s warming under the heat lamp.”
The big man tapped the glass a second time. “Or dead.”
“I have this for you. It’s your cover. You know, in case anyone asks questions.” Robert handed him a piece of folded notepaper.
“What is this?”
“Your cover. Facts about lizards and amphibians.”
“I don’t understand,” said the man, his brow creased as he read the list.
“To prove you were here out of intellectual curiosity. Instead of being here to meet me to, you know, discus this matter.”
“So like homework? You’re giving me homework?”
“It’s… Forget it,” said Robert, holding out his hand for the list which the man had no intention of handing back.
The man read on, amused. “The green anole lizard can shed its tail if caught by a predator.”
“It doesn’t matter. Look, my daughter is waiting outside by the Zebra–”
The man looked startled. “You brought your daughter?”
“I… She’s my cover. That’s why I’m here. In case anyone asks. Look, the reason I called you–”
“Weren’t supposed to call me,” said the man, no longer amused, turning his back on the probably-not-dead lizard and locking eyes with Robert.
“No, that’s right. I’m sorry. But things have changed,”
“Not supposed to change.”
Aware that his hands were now shaking, Robert shoved them into his pockets. “That’s right. I mean, I understand your frustration. And I really am sorry for calling you. But this is good. This is good news.”
“I break the guy’s left arm, you give me the rest of the money. That’s the deal.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” said Robert, checking the door again.
“You prefer the right arm?”
“No, no. I don’t–”
“Joke,” said the man, turning his attention back to the lizard.
“Oh, I see. No, that’s very funny. That’s good. But look, I’ll give you the money. Here.” Robert pulled a fat envelope out of his jacket. “See, the full amount. Right now. You don’t need to do anything.”
The man took the money and put it away without counting.
“It doesn’t need to happen now. Derek…” Robert looked around: still alone. “The gentleman we spoke of has pulled out of the race. He doesn’t want the promotion now. He and his wife decided their family–”
“No,” said the man, his breath clouding up the glass.
“No? No? I don’t– No?”
“We have a deal. It goes ahead.”
“That makes no sense.” Robert was aware of just how whiney his voice had become.
“I cancelled engagements.”
“You cancelled… You’re missing out on what, a monster truck show? So what if you cancelled–”
The man spun, grabbed Robert by the arm, and slammed him against the glass. Robert felt like the water buffalo was pushing against him, compressing his chest. He struggled to breathe as the man held him in place.
“We have a deal. We will both honor that deal.” He let Robert go.
“Okay, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You’re right.”
There was a pause. Robert would have called it an uncomfortable silence if the rest of the encounter hadn’t been equally uncomfortable. He turned to leave.
“Or you pay double,” said the man.
“I’m… double? To do nothing, double?”
“Cancellation fee,” said the man. “We can always keep the original deal.”
“This is not acceptable. Gary told me you could be trusted,” said Robert. He made his way to the door. “Fine, we keep the original deal. Have it your way.”
Robert threw open the exit door. But then he paused. He couldn’t make his way out of the building, no matter how hard he tried. Robert turned back and spoke softly, “I’ll get you the money.”
“Hey, you were right!” said the man in response. He tapped at the enclosure glass again. “It just moved.”
Robert left the reptile house.
The man continued to stare at the lizard. “Ecto… thermic…” he said, trying the word out. He then took out the notepaper and began to read.