Two hours later Liz called back.
"Where are you? Your herps are starving." Was Mattie yelling? What the hell, she was pissed off.
"Sorry. I was just going to call you. I've found a home for the two Ball Pythons."
"Great." How could her mood change so suddenly, so dramatically? Was she bi-polar?
"Can I ask you a favour? Can you bring them over to their new home?"
"Tonight about seven. The guy lives in Surrey near Guildford." Liz gave the address of an apartment block. "Phone when you arrive and I'll let you in the underground parking lot. The guy doesn't want the landlord seeing us bringing them in."
"This doesn't sound too good, Liz. Two four foot pythons in an apartment that doesn't allow pets, at least not snakes. I don't mind keeping them for a few more days." Mattie wanted them gone, but not like this.
"Don't worry. The guy's good. Snakes aren't like birds, they need minimum attention and space."
At six fifteen, Mattie closed the textbook on Strategies for University Writing, pulled an anorak over her cardigan and went out to the Land Rover. She turned on the ignition and cranked up the heater. The weather was cold and clear and she wanted the reptiles to be as warm as possible during the journey. She backed the vehicle to the door of the sanctuary, got out but left the motor and heater running and went to collect the snakes.
The cages were about twice the size of a cat cage and Mattie hefted one at a time on a flatbed dolly, pulled it to the door of the sanctuary, then lifted it into the hatchback of the Land Rover.
By six-thirty she was on her way. Heading north on 104th Street she passed a parked car and checking in her rear view mirror noticed the headlights blink on and the vehicle pull out behind her. She wasn't sure if she felt safe or threatened.
She made good time getting to north Surrey but had difficulty locating the actual apartment building at night. When she finally pulled up in front of a three-story, run down apartment, the like of which epitomized the area, it didn't appear she was still being followed. Little wonder after all the abrupt turns and erratic driving up and down side streets in the dark.
"I'm out front," Mattie said, when Liz answered her call.
"Go around back and punch seven, seven, four, one in the keypad and the security gate will open. The guy's stall is three-one-seven, on the lower level. I'll be waiting for you."
Mattie turned into a shadowy lane, found the ramp to the underground parking and entered the code. The gate lifted, she drove in, the gate clanked closed. She slowly proceeded down to the lower level and there was Liz standing by the door to the elevator.
Mattie lowered the window. "I'll pop the hatchback and come back and help you unload."
Liz nodded. Mattie turned into the stall and stopped. She opened the door, got out and was confronted by a man: tall, blond and smiling. Where had he come from?
"Hello," Mattie said. "I've brought your snakes."
"Thank you, I've missed them."
Liz came from behind the vehicle. "Mattie, this is Lee. We need a favour."
"Lee?" At first she thought it strange that the new owner of the reptiles would have the same name as Liz's boyfriend. Then it wasn't strange, it was terrifying.
"Why don't we all get in the truck?" Lee said. His European accent sounded cultured, even friendly.
"What's going on?"
"A small favour, Mattie, like Lizzie said."
"I don't think so."
Lee took a large gun from his coat pocket and pointed it at Mattie's forehead. He nodded to Liz.
"Please cooperate, Mattie," Liz said. "It's only going to take maybe an hour, then we'll be out of your life."
Mattie stared at the gun. First she thought she'd faint, but she didn't, neither did she pee her pants like she had before when confronted by another vicious snake. This time though she didn't think she could count on Liz to save her.
"Lee doesn't want to hurt you, Mattie, he's not a violent man."
Mattie wasn't so sure. "What do you want me to do?"
Lee smiled and lowered the gun. "First, give Liz your cell phone, then we all get in the truck and go for a ride back to where you came from."
The plan was for Mattie to drive back to the sanctuary with Lee and Liz hidden in the back seat to avoid being spotted by police surveillance. She'd exited the underground lot, navigated the side streets and now was on Highway 17 heading back to Delta. She couldn't see anyone following her.
"Then what?" Mattie said.
"Once inside the compound, back up to the sanctuary so Lee and I can get out without being spotted," Liz said. "Then pull up next to the van in the parking lot."
"Go in the house and after a little bit go back out to the van and move it to the far corner of the parking lot, you know, like you want to get it out of the way. Get the two large envelopes under the passenger seat, hide them under your coat. Then get in the Land Rover, back up to the sanctuary like before, we get in and you drop us back at the apartment."
"That's it. We won't bother you again."
Somehow Mattie doubted that.
Once she had turned off the highway on to 104th Street the tail was back. It probably had always been with her Mattie thought, but on this rural road with no traffic they couldn't help but be conspicuous.
Mattie followed instructions, what choice did she have? The big question, one she needed to consider but was reluctant to, was what would they do with her after they got the drugs from the van and she had delivered them back to the apartment in Surrey? Were they just going to trust her to not call the police? Could she convince them she had no inclination whatsoever to do so, to get further entangled in this web of deceit? What if they didn't trust her? They didn't seem like the trusting kind.
She pulled into the compound and watched the car following her go past, hopefully to turn around and park somewhere close by where they could watch her comings and goings.
Mattie backed up to the sanctuary, got out and opened the door. Lee and Liz got out the back door that faced away from the road, kept low and were in the building in seconds.
"Can I unload the snakes?" Mattie said.
"No," Lee said. "Park the truck and get in the house. We don't want to be here any longer than necessary."
"We should let her unload the snakes, Lee. It's cold and they'll get sick."
Lee lashed out with the back of his hand and hit Liz on the side of the face knocking her off balance. He grabbed her by the hair and slammed her against the wall.
"Fuck the snakes," he said. Liz crumpled to the floor in a tiny black heap.
Lee looked at Mattie. He smiled. "Stick with the plan. Liz will be waiting at the back door of the house to keep you company. I'll stay here with the birds. After fifteen minutes, go and move the van, get the envelopes and back your truck up here."
Mattie was shaking. She remembered a saying her grandfather was fond of, "Character is not made in crisis. It is only exhibited." Lee was showing his true character and it did not bode well for any of them, snakes included. She turned to go.
"Do as I ask Mattie, and nothing will happen to you - or your beloved birds."
Mattie parked the Land Rover in the lot and went into the house. Liz was waiting at the back door. The side of her face was purple and her eye was swelling. The flesh on her cheek was torn, ripped by rings Lee was likely wearing. Mattie guided her to a kitchen chair. She got a bowl from the cupboard, went to the refrigerator's icemaker, filled the bowl, then wrapped some of the ice in a clean dish towel.
"Put this on your face."
Liz took the makeshift ice pack and pressed it against her cheek. "He's under a lot of stress." She wouldn't meet Mattie's eyes.
"He wouldn't hurt the birds would he?"
"Look, just do as he says, okay."
"Liz, if we band together maybe we can get out of this alive. I can use a landline to call the police. They're just outside the gate."
Liz looked at her with one big frightened eye and one half swollen shut. For an instant Mattie thought she'd do it, then she shook her head. "I owe him."
"No you don't, Liz. You owe it to yourself to get free of him. Once he's in prison I can help you. I promise."
Liz tried to smile but her lip was cracked and caked with blood. "This is a big score. With the money he'll make selling what's in the envelopes we'll be able to leave the the country and start a new life."
"You believe that? Look how much he cares for the pythons."
Liz's eyes went hard. "Times up. Go move the van, then get in the Land Rover and back it up to the sanctuary." She slid the key to the van across the table. "Don't do anything stupid, Mattie. I'd hate for anything bad to happen to Pickles and the rest of your flock."
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