M. H. Callway writes mostly crime fiction short stories and novellas, many of which have won or been short-listed for leading awards, including the CWC Awards and the Derringer. This year her work was nominated in both the short story and the novella category. Her novella, Amdur’s Ghost, is part of our latest anthology, In the Spirit of 13.
Dr. Benjamin Amdur, the beleaguered civil servant in Ontario’s Ministry of Health, originally appeared in “Amdur’s Cat”, a novella in our first anthology, Thirteen.
Amdur stumbles across a lion on his way home from a Christmas party. Little does he suspect that the lion will help him save Ontario’s public health care…
On a snowy December night Benjamin Amdur saw a lion. It was gamboling about like a kitten swatting at the fat, wet snowflakes that tumbled through the dark. Right in the centre of Riverdale Park by the children’s wading pool.
Under the lamps of the park’s snowy pathway, the lion’s tawny fur glowed like the back of an old velvet sofa. For a brief moment – that gap between the surreal world and biting reality – he watched Rousseau’s painted lion come to life.
Then he remembered the sleeping gypsy – the minstrel who was about to eaten.
He grasped the icy black iron fence beside him. The house it surrounded lay dark. At two in the morning, its inhabitants, like most normal people, were in bed. By the time he woke them up screaming for help, the lion would have torn out his throat.
With infinite caution, his eyes on the animal, he edged back into the shadows of Winchester Street, the road he’d weaved down moments before. Behind him, three blocks away, lay Parliament Street with its strip bars, eateries and mini-marts. Surely to God one of those places had to be open!
The lion leapt in the air. It snapped at the snowflakes as they fell. He heard the crunch of its jaws, saw the flash of its teeth. Its tail lashed back and forth.
Then it paused, raised its huge head and sniffed the air. Its nostrils twitched.
It saw me!
Amdur turned and ran like a mad man.
Adrenalin buoyed him up for the first few feet but deserted him almost immediately. He was forty-eight and twenty pounds overweight. His regular habit of walking to work did nothing to bolster his panic-stricken need to run. He tore down the slushy sidewalk, his mind fixed on the zebras of the veldt. Zebras who ran far more swiftly than he. Zebras brought down and eviscerated alive…
By the time he reached the yellow lights of Parliament Street his chest was heaving. He doubled over, gasping for oxygen. If the lion got him now, he was dinner. But he couldn’t take another step.
He looked frantically up and down the street. Every storefront was dark. No buses, no taxis, no cars.
Then he spotted an angel standing under a streetlight a few yards to the south. Well, not an angel exactly, but a young police officer, her uniform immaculate, the brim of her cap spotless, her leather boots and gun holster gleaming with polish.
He summoned his remaining strength and stumbled over to her. “Oh, thank God…an animal…danger…” He couldn’t stop panting. “Very dangerous. Over by …Riverdale Farm.”
She raised a tidy eyebrow. “Are you quite all right, sir?”
“No…no, I’m not all right.” With the dispassion of his medical training, he estimated his heart to be thumping at 180 beats per minute. His blood pressure didn’t bear thinking about. “You…help…must get help.”
“How much have you had to drink tonight, sir?”
“Drink?” he echoed.
“Quite a few, I’d say. Identification, please.”
“What?” Finally he caught his breath. “Please, you don’t understand. There’s a bloody great animal running around loose. It’ll rip someone apart. We have to stop it.”
“Your ID. Now!” Her hand moved toward her baton.
Amdur dragged out his wallet and handed her his driver’s license. Her laser stare burned through its laminate cover.
“Dr. Benjamin Amdur.” She studied his face with more than an element of disbelief. “So you’re a doctor.”
“Yes, I’m with the Ministry of Health. I’m Assistant Deputy Minister in charge of OHIP.”
That made no impression on her whatsoever. “OHIP?”
“Your, I mean, our free medicine in Ontario. Look here, we’re wasting time.”
“How many drinks have you had tonight, sir?”
“What the hell does it matter? I was at a Christmas party, for heaven’s sake. At the National Club.” That lofty name made even less impression on her. “I tell you I know what I saw. There’s a lion on the loose.”
“Lion! Why didn’t you say so!”
“I did say so.”
“Where? Where did you see it?”
“In Riverdale Park, by the children’s wading pool…the farm.”
She shoved his license in her tunic and tore down Winchester Street, leaving him standing there like an idiot. He chased after her, but she set a blistering pace. He only managed to catch up with her at the edge of the park.
No sign of the lion.
Amdur squinted through the heavy curtain of falling snow. Where was the beast? Where was it? The grounds of the park stretched out before him, white and featureless under the thick drifts.
“I don’t see any lion.” The police officer scanned the area with her hard dark eyes. “Show me exactly where you saw him.”
“Right over there!” Amdur pointed to the spot.
“OK, let’s go. You first.”
“I don’t think that’s wise.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” She unbuttoned her holster. “Get going or I’ll arrest you. For wasting police time.”
The pathway lay buried in snow. He trudged through the heavy wet drifts toward the dark shapes of Riverdale Farm, a miserable King Wenceslas with his testy page behind him.
By the time they arrived at the snowed-in wading pool, he was thoroughly chilled. “The lion was here.” He scanned the ground for paw prints but saw nothing. “He was running around right here, I swear it. The snow must have covered his tracks.”
“Right, sure. One side.” She pushed past him, bending down to study the snow drift in front of them. Suddenly she stiffened. “Did you hear that?”
“No, nothing.” The falling snow muffled all sound.
“Over there.” She pointed to a tangled clump of bushes a few feet away, stood up and unbuttoned her gun holster. “Stay here.” She headed for the bushes.
“Wait! For heaven’s sake, call for back-up.”
She vanished behind the twisted mass of branches. The lion must be behind it, lurking…
Amdur fumbled for his Blackberry. Why had he trusted that inexperienced young constable? She was going to get them both killed.
He tried to punch out 911, but the phone slithered from his frozen hands and plopped into the snow. He kneeled down and foraged desperately for it. By the time his numb fingers retrieved it, he was staring at the police officer’s polished boots.
He stumbled to his feet. “You’re back. You’re all right.”
“Score ten out of ten, Captain Obvious. You can put your phone away now.”
“Where’s the lion? Did you see him?”
“Oh, yeah, right. The lion. Sure, I saw him. Teeth like a raptor. I’ve got him right here.”
He noticed belatedly that she was clutching a furry wet bag in her arms. The bag came to life with a piercing cry.
“Here take him.”
Before he had a chance to react, she heaved the soaking bundle at him. It thudded against his chest. Long, curved claws dug into his cashmere overcoat.
“That’s a cat!”
“I didn’t see a cat. I saw a lion!”
“Right, sure you did. Time to go home. You first.” She pointed the way out of the park.
“This isn’t my cat. I don’t own a cat.” He tried in vain to detach the animal’s claws. “Look, I can’t just take him.”
“Fine, doctor.” The word ‘doctor’ rang with the respect she no doubt reserved for pimps and pederasts. “Here’s your choice. Either you take your cat home all nice and quiet or I throw you in the drunk tank. How about that? I bet that’d go down real well with your fancy-ass friends at the National Club.”
“For God’s sake!” He gripped the cat with his free hand and shoved his phone back into his coat pocket with the other. He felt exhausted – and admittedly too well-oiled – to argue any further.
She’d read his address from the front of his driver’s license, so she knew exactly where he lived. He stumbled out of the park to Sumach Street, then north to the tall brick Victorian house that held his flat. Both she and the cat stuck with him up to the front door.
“Keys!” She held out a gloved hand.
Swearing, he clutched the cat with one chilled hand, dug out his keys with the other and handed them over.
Once safe inside his flat, he tried to detach the cat, but it let out a terrifying howl.
“Damn it, the cat will wake the other tenants. What do I do?”
She laughed and tossed his keys down on the hardwood floor next to his soaking feet. “Dry him off and feed him. Give him tuna. Cats like tuna.”
“And what the hell do I do about his other end?”
“Tear up some newspaper. Throw it in a box. And don’t forget, Dr. Amdur. I know where you live.” She snapped the edge of his driver’s license and flipped it down onto the floor next to his keys.
With that, she slammed his front door shut and left.
And he’d taken her for an angel! She was a demon, a witch – and this wretched lump of wetness attached to his chest was her familiar.
He lurched down the hall to the bathroom, the cat clinging to his overcoat like grim death. He yanked a bath towel off the heated rack, wrapped it around the animal and tried to dry it off. It shuddered with cold and meowed piteously. After a few more minutes of rubbing, it looked slightly less like a demonic imp from hell. He could see that although its fur was mostly black, it had white paws like socks. A red leather collar circled its neck: it had to be someone’s pet.
“There you go, cat.” At long last, he managed to extract its claws from his coat. He set it down on the tiles next to the radiator. Now he had to feed the damn thing.
He made his way to the kitchen. On his way there, he flung off his sodden coat and retrieved his keys and driver’s license. I’m going mad, he thought, shivering. Hallucinating. Seeing lions of all things.
He seized the bottle of cognac standing on the granite counter, poured himself a generous shot and downed it.
Alzheimer’s at forty-eight, he thought. Rare, but medically possible. Or maybe it’s because the wretched Tories got elected by a landslide – that’s what’s pushed me over the edge.
He faced an unpleasant Executive Committee meeting first thing in the morning. The Assistant Deputy Minister’s formal introduction to the new Minister of Health: a man named Herb Cott, a first-time MPP and an as yet unknown quantity. Amdur’s IT staff had scoured the internet and uncovered that Cott’s life experience was limited to running a fish bait shop. In the same riding where the new Premier kept his family cottage, of course.
From selling worms to managing the multi-billion dollar operations of the Ministry of Health. Wonderful! Amdur poured himself another shot of cognac.
“Meow!” The cat had followed him into the kitchen. It crouched on the slate tiles, its luminous green eyes looking up at him expectantly.
Right, feed the damn cat. He set down his empty glass and searched through the cupboards. No tuna, but he did have some canned salmon. It was Nora, his late wife’s favorite comfort food. Even now with Nora gone, he couldn’t resist buying it whenever he made the effort to go grocery shopping.
He opened the can, slopped a few spoonfuls onto a saucer and set it down on the floor. The cat gave it a tentative sniff.
“Salmon not good enough for you?” Amdur opened his stainless steel refrigerator and found a carton of milk. He poured a little milk into a soup bowl and turned to give it to the cat. The salmon had disappeared.
“That was fast work.” He set the milk down in front of the cat, fetched a dry bath towel from the bathroom, folded it and put it down in front of the kitchen radiator. “There’s your spot,” he told it.
Now for the other end. He glanced at his watch. Already time for the morning paper to be delivered. Given its praise for the Tories’ promised deep cuts to health care spending, he couldn’t think of a better use for it.
But when he opened the outside door to pick up the paper, he noticed a large shopping bag sitting on the verandah. Inside it he found a plastic litter pan, kitty litter and several cans of cat food.
And a handwritten note that said: I know where you live.
He woke with a start three hours later. The cat had crawled onto the foot of his bed while he slept. It purred as he examined the red leather collar around its neck. No tags, nothing that could identify its owner.
“What am I going to do with you?” he said to the cat as he got ready for work. “No time to find your owner this morning. I’m already fiendishly late.”
Despite grabbing a taxi, he was the last of the ADM’s to arrive at the Executive Committee Boardroom. Vladimir Nickle, the aged Deputy Minister, raised a sparse eyebrow in disapproval. Amdur’s colleagues shouted their ribald greetings, ignoring Nickle as usual. Nickle’s lengthy and ineffectual sojourn at the Ministry had allowed them to run their divisions as they pleased – and assured their ongoing loyalty to him.
Amdur tossed out a few cheerful zingers in reply before he dropped into his usual chair beside his friend and ally, Judy Reed, the ADM of Communications and Community Health. A blissful aroma of fresh coffee emanated from the credenza over by the wall, reminding him that he’d missed breakfast. He noticed that Nickle had dusted off the Ministry’s official china set and even ordered muffins in honour of Cott’s visit.
“Muffins!” Amdur eyed them hungrily. “Nickle never budgets for food. Even at Christmas,” he whispered to Judy.
“Cott won’t care about Nickle’s little party,” she whispered back. “My sources tell me the Premier’s staff call him The Cutter. He hates all forms of government. In fact, he calls us bureaucrats ‘civil serpents’.”
“What did we poor overworked government buggers do to him? Turn down his fishing license?”
“Don’t joke. The Cutter’s catchphrase is: I’m derailing the government gravy train.”
Amdur glanced at his watch. Minister Cutter and his retinue were already several minutes late. Casual conversations broke out around the table. Nickle appeared to be dozing off.
Since Judy owned at least three cats, Amdur entertained her with the tale of his late night adventures though he carefully omitted any mention of the lion.
“The way that police officer behaved!” she said. “That poor kitty! His owners must be frantic. You should file a complaint with Toronto Police Services.”
“Oh, I can’t be bothered. I’ll drop the cat off at the Humane Society tonight.”
“Well, you could do that, I suppose. But many owners don’t think to look there for their lost pets. I know a faster way. Is the cat chipped?”
“You mean a microchip?”
“Yes, vets sometimes put a chip under the cat’s skin. It holds the owner’s contact information. I know a nice vet in Riverdale. Why don’t you take the cat there? Ask him to read your cat’s chip.”
“Fine, but how do I carry the bloody cat over to the vet clinic? I need a leash or something.”
Judy laughed. “I have a spare cat carrier in my office. Drop by and pick it up.” She laid a warning hand on his arm. “Heads up.”
Nickle’s eyes had creaked open. He uttered a dry cough. “Gentlemen, ladies. Time is rather getting on. Have any of you had word…from your respective staffs…that perhaps…”
“Our new guy is wandering around doing an impromptu inspection?” one of the other ADM’s filled in.
A flurry of Blackberries and iPads hit the table. After a lot of furious tapping and hushed conversations, everyone came up empty. No sign of the new minister.
Nickle heaved a windy sigh. “Rather a basic question perhaps, but do we know what our new Minister looks like? He is …um…rather an unknown quantity. Do we perchance have a…um…photograph?”
Glances were exchanged. Amdur pulled up a file on his iPad, quietly blessing his IT staff for covering his backside. “This is him.”
He passed his iPad to Nickle who passed it on. It circled the boardroom table to cries of “He’s fishing in his canoe, how cute.” “People voted for that?” “Who’s uglier, him or the pickerel he just caught?”
“Might I have your attention?” Nickle’s voice sounded surprisingly strong. “Benjamin, you’re the practical one. Would you mind…”
“Of course.” Amdur rose and left the boardroom, taking his iPad with him.
Rather than searching aimlessly through the rabbit warren of corridors at Queen’s Park, he took the elevator straight down the main lobby. To his relief one of the senior security guards, Ludmilla, an uncompromising Russian immigrant, sat on duty at the main reception desk.
“Sure, I see this weirdo.” She handed him back his iPad. “He say, hey you lady, take me to Minister’s office. So I say, sure, no problem, but Minister he is busy guy. You go down hall to Service Ontario. Stand in line for your health card like normal peoples.”
Disaster, Amdur thought. He rushed down the hall to the Service Ontario office, looking frantically for signs of the Minister’s party. In the crowded room, he spotted no well-tailored people who could be Cott or his aides.
He handed his iPad to the receptionist sitting at the entrance to Service Ontario. She studied the screen and pointed to the waiting area. There in the front row, his back to them, sat a rumpled fiftyish man, alone.
Amdur straightened his posture and walked over to him. It was Cott all right, a scowl on his face and a number slip in his hand.
Bloodshot eyes stared up at him from under a set of shaggy brows. Cott wore a hunting vest over his red plaid shirt. His stained khaki pants were shoved into a pair of muddy rubber boots. No hat graced his close-cropped head.
“We’re waiting for you upstairs, Minister. Is your team with you?”
Cott heaved his bulk out of the chair and followed Amdur out of the Service Ontario office. When they passed security in the main lobby, Cott balled up the paper number and tossed it in Ludmilla’s face.
Amdur cleared his throat in protest, but Cott had already barreled over to the elevators. They continued their journey upstairs in deathly silence.
When they reached the top floor, Amdur ushered Cott down the hall into the Executive Boardroom. None of the ADM’s could conceal their surprise. The pickerel had landed.
Nickle creaked to his feet and offered Cott his chair. Cott plunked himself down and said nothing. He made a slow study of each of the ADM’s in turn.
A staring contest, Amdur realized, annoyed at Cott’s childish power game. He watched Nickle teeter over to the credenza, pour out a cup of coffee and shakily set it down in front of the new Minister.
Cott looked at it. “What’s that? You trying to poison me?”
Nickle uttered a dry laugh. “Good joke, Minister. Very good joke.” He signaled to the others to join in the laughter. No one did.
“Go sit over there.” Cott pointed Nickle to the chairs along the side of the room where his aides, had they been there, were supposed to sit. Nickle shrugged and did as he was told.
Cott leaned his burly forearms on the boardroom table. “Now then. Your Ministry eats up thirty billion of dollars every single year. Your Ministry eats up more’n any other goddamn government department. Hell, it eats up more’n all them departments combined. That’s money you guys steal right out of the taxpayer’s wallet.”
“With respect, Minister, Ontario taxpayers do get considerable benefits from our health care system,” Amdur put in.
“Oh, you think so, eh? I’ll tell you what the taxpayers want. They want choice. They don’t want no nanny state. They want their freedom back.”
“You mean freedom to die if you can’t afford a doctor or a hospital,” Judy said from her place next to Amdur.
Cott ignored her. “Now you all listen up good. No more swimming around in gravy. I’m cutting your health budget by fifty percent. That’s right: fifty percent. That’s what I told the voters I’d do when I got elected and you’re gonna watch me do it. Next year, I’m cutting you buggers back another fifty percent. You wanna keep working here, you’ll do what I say. Understand?”
In the stunned silence that followed, Cott foraged in his hunting vest for a cigar. He leaned back, clumped his muddy feet on the mahogany table and lit up.
“Minister, the…um…presentations,” Nickle ventured from his exile next to the muffins .
“Save it. I’m gonna meet with each and every one of you.” Cott pointed with his cigar. “And each of you is gonna have to prove to me why I don’t just axe you and your whole damn department.” He swayed forward, thumping his feet on the floor. “And in case any of you civil serpents get any ideas, remember: Herb Cott stabs from the front.”
“No problem, Minister,” Amdur couldn’t help saying. “I believe you’ve come to the right place.”
“You certainly didn’t help matters,” Judy said later that afternoon when Amdur dropped by her office to pick up the cat carrier.
“Sorry.” Amdur slumped into the chair facing her desk. “The world’s gone mad. A fool of a worm seller bent on destroying the health system of fourteen million people.”
“I know.” She wiped her nose with a tissue.
“Good heavens, Judy. You’ve been crying.”
“Close the door.” While he did so, she opened the bottom drawer of her desk and pulled out a bottle of scotch and two glasses. “Join me?”
“Of course.” He watched her pour out two generous shots. “What’s happened?”
“Cott was just here. He accused me and my division of handing out freebies to illegal immigrants and perverts. He’s closing down all the walk-in clinics in the province, starting with the AIDS clinics.”
“That’s illegal. He’ll never get away with it.”
“The Tories have a majority in the House. They can do whatever they like. The Cabinet will simply pass an executive order. They could do it tonight.”
Amdur took a large swallow of scotch. Crazy as it sounded, Judy was right.
“It’s not the money, Ben. Mother and I will manage somehow. But if Cott fires me or I quit my job, who will fight for the AIDS clinics? He’s flushing thirty years of progress down the drain.”
“We all have to fight Cott. All we ADM’s together.”
“We’ll all be fighting too hard to protect our own turfs. You know how it works.”
Maybe we’re not civil serpents as much as rats, Amdur thought.
“Cott’s a horrible, petty little man.” Judy swiped at her nose. “He’s cancelled all vacations until further notice. Everyone in the Ministry has to work through Christmas. If he fires you, he’s making you work the mandatory two week notice period. And that includes Christmas, of course. Lay-offs start tomorrow. He bragged about it!”
“That bastard!” Amdur drained his glass. “No one takes my staff without a fight.”
But he knew he was facing the fight of his life.
The cat was waiting by the front door when Amdur returned home that night. It purred loudly and rubbed itself against his legs.
“Well, cat, you’re the only happy person I’ve seen today.”
He made for the kitchen and heard it patter in after him. While he heated up a frozen dinner in the microwave, he opened one of the cans of cat food the police officer had left him.
“Disgusting muck.” Amdur stared at the can’s contents and refilled the cat’s dish. “Like pate that’s gone off. But you seem to like it well enough.”
The cat made a strange humming noise while it ate, purring and chewing at the same time.
He poured out milk for the cat and a large glass of Bordeaux for himself. When his dinner was ready, he carried it into his study and set it down on the desk next to his laptop. With all the day’s distractions, he faced hours of more work before bed.
I’ve got to put a stop to The Cutter, but how? he thought. I can’t even trust my own brain. Did I see that wretched lion or didn’t I?
He gulped down his meal while he combed the internet for reports of escaped lions in Toronto. Nothing. Frustrated, he pulled out his Blackberry and dialed Toronto Police Services. After an excruciating maze of telephone menus, he reached the duty officer.
“No sir, no reports about lions missing from the Toronto Zoo. Are you quite sure that’s what you saw?”
Time to track down the cat-throwing police officer, Amdur decided. Filing a complaint would make him feel better.
He told the duty officer what had happened.
“Did she give you her name and badge number?”
“No, I forgot to ask.”
“Sir, the force has over five thousand sworn officers. And a lot of them are dark-haired females in their twenties.”
“Surely to God you know the names of the officers on patrol in Riverdale last night!”
“Sure do. Constables Chan and Wong. Both male. Have yourself a nice night, sir.”
Amdur was left listening to the dial tone. Wonderful, he thought. Now the police have me down on their weirdo list.
“Meow!” The cat appeared next to his chair. In the next instant, it leapt onto his desk and knocked over his wine glass.
“Damn it, cat.” He wiped up the wine. “Never mind. Time for me to get to work.” The cat stretched out across his keyboard. “Enough foolishness.” He lifted the cat onto his lap where it settled down. More purring.
It stayed put while Amdur quenched the critical issues burning in his division. At the same time, he tried to reassure his staff that the Ministry wasn’t going down like the Titanic.
Ha, bloody ha, he thought.
At midnight an urgent e-mail appeared in his inbox. Nickle had resigned his post as deputy minister.
Amdur leaned back, absently stroking the cat. “Poor Nickle. What a cold-hearted Merry Christmas after forty-five years of service! Inevitable, I suppose.” He sighed. “Tell me, cat, what did you see last night? Did you see the lion?”
The cat looked up attentively. Its pointed black and white face was rather sweet, Amdur thought.
“I can’t just keep calling you ‘cat’. All right, while you’re staying with me, why don’t I call you Tiddles? That’s the name of my wife, Nora’s cat, the one she grew up with. He was quite the character apparently. I used to enjoy her stories about Tiddles. You see, I never had pets as a child. Too difficult in central London, especially with both parents working as doctors.”
Amdur roused himself. It wouldn’t do to get attached to the cat. It belonged with its owners whoever they were.
He searched out the website of the vet clinic Judy had recommended. It opened early in the morning. He’d have just enough time to drop by with Tiddles before work.
The Saint Francis Animal Hospital sat on Parliament Street a short distance down from Peepers, Riverdale’s notorious strip club.
At least the strippers have some Christmas spirit, Amdur thought as he lugged the cat carrier past the club to the vet clinic. Red and green lights were ablaze in its garish marquee and massive Christmas wreaths adorned its tarnished brass doors.
He and Tiddles were the animal hospital’s first customers. A tiny dark man in medical greens introduced himself as the veterinarian, Dr. Ali.
“Muhammad Ali, actually,” the vet said as he showed them into the examination room. “This is a big joke, yes?”
Amdur tried to smile. He set the cat carrier down on the steel examining table and tried to extricate Tiddles. The cat had resisted getting into the carrier and now only a nuclear bomb could dislodge him.
“Allow me.” Dr. Ali dug some cat treats out of his jacket pocket. They worked like magic. Tiddles emerged and in short order, allowed himself to be examined. “How long have you owned your kitty?”
Amdur explained that he’d found Tiddles in Riverdale Park.
“I see. Well, your lost kitty is a neutered male. Looking at his teeth, I would say he is about five years old.” The vet ran his gentle hands down Tiddles’ sides. “He is rather thin, but his coat is thick. I would agree with you, doctor, that he is somebody’s pet. He has a lovely nature, but…he is nervous. Has he suffered a trauma?”
“A predator chased him. A li-.” Amdur stopped himself just in time.
“Exactly! Coyotes and foxes travel down the ravine system to hunt in our city. The outdoors is dangerous for kitties.” He fingered the scruff of Tiddles’ neck. “Good news. The kitty has a chip. I will read it and try to locate his owner.”
He picked up Tiddles and carried him through the connecting door of the examination room into the innards of the animal hospital.
Alone for the moment, Amdur called his executive assistant, Leslie Wong, on his Blackberry.
“So far no earth-shattering crises – or at least they can wait till you get here,” she told him. “Oh, and Otto Winter, your IT security consultant, wants to see you.”
Wonderful, Amdur thought. Otto never asked for a meeting unless his IT crisis was earth-shattering. “Very well. Tell Otto I’ll see him for lunch at my usual pub.” He couldn’t afford the time to eat lunch, but now he couldn’t afford not to.
He finished the call just as Dr. Ali returned with Tiddles.
“I have good news and bad news,” the vet said. “The good news is that I have located the kitty’s owner.”
“And the bad news?”
“I have spoken with her. She lives in Mississauga.”
“But how could Tiddles end up in Riverdale Park? He’d have to cross thirty kilometers of highways and busy city streets to get here.”
“Exactly. Sad to say some cat owners are not good people. When they no longer want their kitty, they simply throw him away. In a park or a cemetery.”
“I can’t return Tiddles to that woman. She’ll only dump him somewhere else.”
“True enough. Luckily, she does not want him back. But she did say a strange thing. She claims he ran away in June. Obviously he has not been living rough for six months. He has found a new home in this area. This is the owner you must locate.”
Amdur’s heart sank. “What do you suggest?”
“My staff will put up a notice. That sometimes works. And you might call the other vet clinics near here.”
Amdur thought hard for a moment. “Tell me, do you know of an animal hospital that deals with, um, much larger animals?”
“Do you mean horses? Or farm animals?”
“No, I meant…a lion.”
“A lion?” Dr. Ali laughed, highly amused. “Heavens, no! To own such a beast in downtown Toronto would be highly illegal. Why do you ask?”
“Oh…er… curiosity.” The ring of his Blackberry saved him from further explanation. He recognized Judy Reed’s name on the call display. She sounded panic-stricken when he answered.
“I just stepped out to call you. Cott and his crew are in my office. They’re coming to see you next. And, Ben, Cott is on the warpath.”
No time to take Tiddles home. Amdur quickly paid the vet clinic and hailed a cab outside. While the taxi tore down Wellesley Street to Queen’s Park, he phoned Leslie, his executive assistant, to warn her about Cott’s imminent arrival.
“Take the freight elevator. I’ll meet you,” she said. “Judy will try to stall them another five minutes.”
When he got to Queen’s Park, Ludmilla, the security guard, unlocked the freight elevator for him and sent him and Tiddles up to his floor.
Leslie was waiting for him when he arrived. He tore off his overcoat and gloves and handed them to her. But when he tried to give her the cat carrier, she waved it away, eyes and nose streaming.
”I can’t, Ben. Allergies…”
He could hear Cott’s rough voice approaching. No time. He ran into his office, sat down behind his desk and shoved Tiddles’ carrier beneath it.
“No noise, Tiddles.” He had only seconds to fire up his iPad before Cott burst into his office with two men behind him.
The first, a tall bulky man, closed Amdur’s door and took up position in front of it. Obviously a private bodyguard. The other much smaller, thinner man set down his briefcase and introduced himself as Cott’s lawyer.
Both Cott’s aides wore expensive suits. Perhaps that was why The Cutter had switched his hunting gear for a dusty blue blazer over a golf shirt. Muddy Doc Martins replaced his rubber boots. He sat down in the visitor’s chair opposite Amdur’s desk without asking. The lawyer stayed on his feet.
“You’ve gotta a lot of computer types in your shop,” Cott said without preamble. “You can tell ‘em their jobs are going. Over to India where they do the same stuff for cheap.”
“I regret, Minister, that simply won’t be possible,” Amdur said.
“What’s your problem? Look at you. You’re from there and you’re working here.”
“I’m a Canadian citizen via England.” Amdur breathed deeply to stay calm. “And Minister, you cannot replace a Canadian’s job with a foreign national. It’s against the law.”
“Corporations ship jobs offshore all the time. Hell, one of the big banks just did it.”
“And got in a lot of trouble for it.”
“So what? Get used to idea. And fast.” Cott pulled out a cigar and pointed it at the lawyer. “You, fix it.”
The lawyer coughed discreetly. “With all due respect, Minister. Dr. Amdur does have a point.”
“He does, does he?” Cott lit up.
“Would you mind putting that out?” Amdur said. “My executive assistant is extremely allergic to tobacco smoke.”
“She’s not here.”
“She will be in my office after you leave.”
Cott scowled. The lawyer plucked the smoldering cigar from his fingers and walked it over to the security guard, who took it outside.
“Where’s he going? I need my protection,” Cott said.
“He’ll only be gone a moment,” the lawyer assured him. “In the meantime, we have that other more serious issue to discuss.”
At that moment, Tiddles let out an unearthly howl from where he sat trapped in the cat carrier.
“What the hell was that?” Cott looked around frantically.
“Nothing.” Amdur folded his hands on top of the desk. “Did you hear anything?” he asked the lawyer.
“Um…not sure. The issue, Minister?”
“Oh, yeah.” Cott collected himself. “You got a criminal working for you. In security no less. Now that’s gotta be illegal.”
“Ah, you must mean Otto Winter,” Amdur said “He’s our security expert. And yes, he does have a suspended sentence for computer hacking. An old sentence, I’d like to point out. He’s saved Ontario taxpayers tens of millions of dollars by tracking down health care fraud.”
“So what? Fire him.”
“Can’t or won’t.”
“Both. I refuse to fire an excellent member of my staff without cause. And may I point out, Minister, I’m sure you don’t want a lawsuit for unfair dismissal on your hands.”
Cott looked at his lawyer. “Can the Winter guy do that?”
“I’m afraid so, Minister,” the lawyer said.
“Bull crap. He don’t have the bucks to sue.” Cott leaned forward, pointing. “Now you listen to me…”
Tiddles let out another anguished howl. Cott froze, index finger in midair. “You…you’ve got a cat in here. A cat!”
“I’m sure he doesn’t, Minister.” The lawyer threw a worried glance at Amdur. “You don’t, do you?”
Busted, Amdur thought. “Actually, I do. Tiddles is our divisional house cat. I find that he’s good for employee morale. And improved productivity.”
“Protection…where’s my protection?” Cott’s pudgy features took on a strange purplish hue. “He’s killing me…I can’t breathe.”
Amdur leaped up to intervene worried that The Cutter had a bad heart, but the lawyer waved him off and helped Cott to his feet.
“Herb, it’s OK. We’re going, OK? And Amdur is going to get rid of the damn cat. Right?”
“As you wish.”
Wheezing, Cott leaned on Amdur’s desk. “You…you planned this. You tried to kill me. You’re dead…you hear me? You’re dead.”
He shook off his lawyer’s helping hand and stumbled out of Amdur’s office. The lawyer shrugged, picked up his briefcase and followed him.
Amdur sank back into his chair. “Well, Tiddles, I believe we’ve witnessed the worst case of felinophobia I’ve ever seen. And now since I’ve been declared dead, I am going to lunch.”
A biting wind tore down Bay Street, chilling Amdur as he walked south with Tiddles to his favorite pub, The Duke of Sommerset. The hostess smiled when she recognized him and turned a blind eye to the cat carrier. She led him to his usual booth at the back where a fat sixtyish man sat nursing a glass of foamy beer.
Amdur slid into the booth opposite Otto Winter. He put the cat carrier on the bench, its mesh gate facing him so he could keep an eye on Tiddles.
“New friend, doctor? Personally I prefer the ladies.” Otto grinned over his beer. His cropped grey hair and stubbly jowls reminded Amdur of a decayed storm trooper.
“Never mind the cat. What’s the problem?”
“Better get your beer first. You will need it.” Otto groped through his grubby back pack and heaved a battered laptop onto the table.
Amdur ordered a much-needed pint of Boddingtons ale. It arrived in a flash and he took a grateful swallow. “All right, how bad is the bad news?”
“Our new dictator, Cott the Cutter, tried to hack into your email. Indeed he tried to explore the confidential files of your entire division.”
“Not to worry. No one gets through my firewalls. But Cott certainly has been a busy little beaver.”
“But Cott’s an idiot worm salesman. He can’t be doing the hacking himself.”
“Of course not. His lawyer hired a computer rat in Asia to do Cott’s dirty work. A sneaky little rat, but not a deep thinker. I amused myself a little then boom! I spiked him. For me, a piece of delicious cake.” Otto finished his beer and fished a rumpled envelope from the pocket of his equally rumpled jacket. “My resignation.”
“Over my dead body!” Amdur banged down his beer glass. “The Ministry needs you. Now more than ever.”
Otto shrugged his heavy shoulders. “You may change your mind in a minute. You see, last night after I fixed the rat, I made a wormhole in Cott’s firewall. And up periscope!” He twisted his index finger to demonstrate.
“I shouldn’t be hearing this.”
“Even your cat could breach Cott’s el-cheapo security. Relax, Doctor. No one detected my ghost in The Cutter’s infernal machine.” Otto laced his fingers over his ample paunch. “Now ask me anything.”
“Otto, I’m going to pretend this conversation never happened.”
“I knew you would have scruples. Too bad.” Otto nudged his resignation letter over to Amdur’s side of the table. “Cott spends all his time on line watching porno.”
“How depressingly predictable!”
“Allow me to share the kinky details over lunch. My parting gift to the Ministry.”
Otto fired up his laptop.
Otto’s resignation letter in his pocket, Amdur flagged down a cab after lunch and took Tiddles home. While the taxi waited outside, he released Tiddles from the carrier and refilled his dishes. Poor cat, he thought as he gave him a pat, you’ve had a tough day. But then again, haven’t we all?
The darkening skies matched his mood as the cab returned him to Queen’s Park. Ludmilla barely acknowledged him when he passed by the reception desk. No doubt after her run-in with Cott, she was working her two week notice through Christmas.
Back on his floor, he found Leslie stripping the ornaments off their office Christmas tree.
“Cott just cancelled all staff Christmas parties,” she said. “All decorations are to be taken down. Not work-related he says, that SOB.”
“Leave the tree up. Put the decorations back on. I’ll deal with Cott and his boys personally if they bother us about it.”
“Thanks, Ben. I could use some Christmas cheer right now.”
“And we’re throwing a farewell party for Nickle tomorrow morning. Here in my office. Call the caterers, send me the bill. Invite the whole damn Ministry.”
“I’ll get right on it. And never mind the caterers. Everyone does potluck at Christmas.”
I’ve got to neutralize Cott, but how? Amdur thought. For the rest of the day he tried to focus on work, but his mind teemed with the unwanted images of Cott’s sex fantasies that Otto had shared over lunch: Cott dressed as an anime school girl, spanking parties, dominatrixes…
He didn’t shut down his laptop until the cleaning staff arrived outside his office. He decided to walk home though it was well past midnight. Maybe the frosty air would clear his head.
When he reached Parliament Street, he thought of the vet clinic. Had Dr. Ali’s staff put up a notice about Tiddles? Might as well check since he was here.
Business at Peepers strip club was brisk. Its brass doors stood open despite the chill, a crowd of patrons smoking outside. The loud throb of pop music assailed his ears as he passed under the pulsating lights of its marquee. Weaving his way around the smokers, something caught his eye.
He stopped in the middle of the sidewalk and stared.
I’ve been had!
Directly across the street from Peepers stood a Lebanese café. Thankfully it was still open. Amdur nabbed a seat by the front window where he had a full view of Peepers’ brass doors. Shortly after he’d polished off his falafel, he spotted her leaving.
She strolled a short distance up Parliament and turned onto Winchester, the same street where he’d fled the lion two nights before.
He left the café and chased after her.
She seemed preoccupied. All to the good since he was a complete novice at spying. He kept pace half a block behind her, dodging the recycling bins set out for next day’s waste collection.
At the end of Winchester, she veered north onto Sumach Street. He raced to the corner only to find that she’d vanished. He swore in frustration.
The ground floor lights of the corner house flashed on – the same house where he’d stood watching the lion. Did she live there?
He remembered holding onto the black iron fence that encircled the house’s front garden. But its back garden lay hidden by a high brick wall. Interesting…
H heard an outside door squeak open. And a voice, unmistakably hers, speaking in warm, affectionate tones.
“Did you miss me, Cyrano? Did you, baby?”
He had to see into that garden. He seized a nearby recycling bin and wheeled it over to the brick wall. In an ungainly scramble, he heaved himself onto the bin’s lid. Leaning on his knees, he grasped the top of the rough brick wall and looked over into the garden.
And saw the lion!
It frolicked in the snow like an oversized dog. When she called his name, he bounded up to her and rubbed his huge mane against the navy legs of her police uniform.
“Good evening,” Amdur called down from his perch. “Now I know where you live.”
The lion turned. His yellow eyes gleamed, a ridge of the fur bristled down his back. He let out an unearthly roar that rattled nearby windows.
“Cyrano, no!” she shouted.
The lion crouched, ready to spring. Amdur lost his balance. In an explosion of noise, he flew off the recycling bin and crashed down on the icy sidewalk. He stared at the stars, winded, unable to move. Waiting for the dread dark shape of the carnivore to leap over the wall.
He heard her anxious voice call: “Cyrano! Cyrano!” Followed by the lion’s roars and grunts as it loped back and forth on the other side of the wall.
Got to get out of here…got to. Before it jumps over and gets me.
His right knee hurt like a bastard. He rolled onto his side and dragged himself up.
Got to get home.
He limped down to the street corner. Now to get past the lion’s house.
He heard the front door bang open.
“Wait, wait! Are you all right?” She charged down the verandah steps to intercept him.
He waved her off. “I’ll be fine. Just keep that bloodthirsty animal of yours locked up. Now get out of my way. I’ve had a bloody awful day.”
“Please don’t call the police.”
“Why not? You impersonated a police officer. And you’re keeping a dangerous predator in a neighbourhood full of children.”
“Cyrano’s a sweetheart. He’s completely tame. And I never said I was a cop.”
“You led me on – admit it.”
“All right, yes, I did. But I was desperate. I had to save Cyrano. The police would have shot him on sight.”
Amdur couldn’t argue with that. “He was behind the bushes the other night, wasn’t he?”
“Yes, but he would never have hurt you. He’s gentle and affectionate. Why don’t you come in and see for yourself? I put him back in his cage. You’ll be safe, I swear.”
“To find out first hand if he likes human flesh? No, thank you!”
“At least tell me if Boots is all right.”
“You mean the poor cat you threw at me? Obviously he’s yours, too. Or was. Well, he’s my cat now. And his name is Tiddles.”
She started to cry. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I didn’t know what else to do. I had to get you out of the park before anyone else saw Cyrano. And-and now I’ve lost Boots…Tiddles…”
“At least he won’t end up as an aperitif for Cyrano.”
“NO! Cyrano would never hurt him. They’re best friends. Look, Cyrano and I are going back home to Las Vegas in a couple of days. I landed a six month gig. Can we please talk about this?”
“Fine”. And so, against all his better instincts, Amdur gave in.
Sophie – for that was her name – settled him in the spacious kitchen at the back of the corner house. She placed an ice pack on his knee and a glass of Bourbon in his hand.
Cyrano crouched in a cage-like structure that resembled an oversized dog crate. He threw off a fusty, gamy odour that filled the room – indeed the entire house. The corner mansion, Amdur learned, belonged to Sophie’s aunt who’d moved into a retirement home.
“I miss Boots,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I found him in the park in June. He was starving, I nursed him back to health.”
“You mean to say that you and Cyrano have been living in Riverdale for six months!”
She nodded. “We were between jobs.”
“That cage looks flimsy.” Amdur and Cyrano glowered at each other. “Small wonder he got out.”
“It’s my fault. Cyrano gets so bored cooped up in his cage. I let him have free run of the house sometimes. He’s never caused trouble before. The other night I forgot to lock the front door. So he got out. Boots, too. Cyrano knows how to work door knobs. He’s very intelligent.”
As if on cue, the lion emitted a low vibrating growl.
“You hear that? He’s purring.” She refilled Amdur’s glass. “I raised him from a cub. My folks, well, all of us are circus people.” She sighed. “I suppose you saw my photo outside Peepers.”
“Yes, Sergeant Cupid, I did. Your police officer act is very convincing.”
“I’m not ashamed. Pole dancing keeps me in shape. And it costs a lot to feed Cyrano.” She frowned. “So are you going to turn me in?”
Amdur sighed. It was Christmas after all. “Fine, I keep Tiddles. You keep Cyrano. But first you’re going to help me with something.”
“I can’t believe I let you talk me into this.” Judy’s hands danced along the rim of her van’s steering wheel. Their wait at the Bay Street intersection outside Queen’s Park was proving endless.
“Sorry about the short notice.” Amdur said from the passenger seat. “You’re the only one I could trust.” His stomach burned. He’d worked through the night, fueled by endless espressos – and now this. “This was not part of the plan, believe me.”
Behind them, Cyrano yawned, bathing them in sulfurous breath. At least a sturdy metal grille separated him from driver and passenger.
Sophie snickered from where she sat beside her lion. “Cyrano’s just a big pussy cat, aren’t you, big boy?”
Judy coughed. “I can’t believe this. Driving a lion through morning rush hour traffic. In my cat rescue van. A lion!”
“I already told your buddy, Amdur, here. I can’t leave Cyrano alone. He got out again last night. Where I go, he goes. Or the deal’s off.”
“The less you know about it, the better,” Amdur put in.
“Ben, whatever you’re planning, drop it. There are a thousand ways this will screw up. And you, Sophie, you should be thrown off the police force. We’ll all end up in jail. This will kill Mother.”
“No one is going to jail.” Amdur wished he could feel more certain about that. “And Sophie’s not a cop. She’s a stripper.”
“Oh, God.” Judy leaned her forehead on the steering wheel. “I’m losing it.”
“No, you are not losing it. Breathe deep. In, out.” Amdur rested his hand on her back. “Come on now, in and out. You’ve faced down coyotes attacking lost cats. You can do this.”
“Green light!” Sophie cried.
Horns blared behind them. Judy tromped on the accelerator. Amdur crashed back against his seat as they tore across the intersection.
Cyrano’s claws scrabbled for purchase on the metal floor. He let out a bellow of fear. Sophie yelled and dragged on his chain.
The van swerved left, fish tailed down into darkness and slammed to a halt. Amdur hit the dash. Somehow, miraculously, Judy had steered them into the underground parking garage.
“Are you crazy!” Sophie shouted. “Cyrano get down! Cyrano!”
The lion let out an ear-shattering roar. Judy’s screams matched his.
“Shut up! Shut up or this whole thing is off!” Sophie shouted.
“Everyone calm down!” Heart thumping, Amdur groped through the glove box and yanked out Judy’s secret stash of scotch. “You, drink this” Judy seized the bottle, tore off the cap and sucked on it like oxygen. “And you, Sophie, control that bloody animal!”
Sophie glared at him. Cyrano moved restlessly, clinking his chain. They waited in strained silence until after a long huff, the lion dropped back down.
“We’re wasting precious time.” Amdur checked his Blackberry. “All right, Otto has turned off the security cameras. Down to the freight bay.”
“OK.” Judy shoved the scotch bottle between her knees. She restarted the van and drove down to the next level.
They pulled into the deserted cargo bay. Ludmilla appeared on the loading platform.
Sophie gasped. “A cop!”
“It’s all right. She’s one of us.” He acknowledged Ludmilla’s thumbs-up. “Sophie and I are off now. Be ready to roll when I text you.” Amdur gave Judy’s arm a squeeze. “Remember: we’re saving the health care of fourteen million people.”
“Fine, just leave me the scotch.” Judy clutched it to her chest.
Amdur jumped out of the van. He slid back the side door to release Sophie and Cyrano.
The lion sniffed the air, wrinkling his face at the smell of exhaust and gasoline. At Sophie’s command he leaped onto the landing of the cargo bay. Amdur and Sophie followed him by way of the stairs.
Ludmilla gave Cyrano the once-over. “Nice lion. Beautiful animal. You feed him today, little girl?”
“He’s perfectly tame!”
“Too bad. Maybe he change his mind when he sees Cott’s fat ass.”
She unlocked the freight elevator door with a grin. Amdur, Sophie and Cyrano climbed aboard. The door closed in front of them with a loud clang. The elevator lurched into motion, heading toward the top floor and the minister’s office.
“Got your iPhone?” he asked Sophie. “Let’s run through things one more time.”
“Leave it! I know what to do.” She frowned. “After today, we’re done. Forever.”
“If this screws up, I won’t be the only one going to jail. That’s a promise.”
“It’ll be worth it.” Amdur checked his phone. The message read: “Meeting full.”
“What meeting?” Sophie read his screen without apology.
“It means we’re safe for the moment. Everyone on the top floor is gone.”
“To the farewell Christmas party for Vladimir Nickle, our old deputy minister. In my office, next floor down.” The elevator bumped to a stop. “Here we are.”
The doors rolled open. Faint sounds of Nickle’s party trickled up the emergency stairwell to their left.
Amdur put the freight elevator on hold. He moved down to the end of the hallway and looked round the corner. The empty main corridor stretched down to the glass security barrier fronting the Minister’s office. Outside it stood Cott’s bodyguard.
“What’s going on?” Sophie pressed up behind him with a rattle of Cyrano’s chain.
“Cott’s bodyguard is still here.”
“I’ll take care of him. You hold Cyrano.” She handed Amdur Cyrano’s leash. “Baby, lie down. I’ll be back soon.”
The lion grunted and sprawled on the floor. Sophie straightened her police uniform and strolled down to the Minister’s office.
The bodyguard didn’t speak until she reached the glass barrier. “Something wrong, officer?” Without the normal background office noise, his voice carried.
“Yes, I have an urgent message for Minister Cott from the Premier’s office,” Sophie said.
“OK, I’ll give it to him.”
“No can do. A Christmas card. From the Tory party. It’s personal.”
“Oh, right.” The guard sounded weary. “I get it. That kind of Christmas card.”
“We need some privacy, say fifteen minutes. Can you fix that?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
Amdur listened to the man’s footsteps retreat. A heartbeat later he heard the swoosh of the main elevator doors.
Cyrano howled and leaped up, jerking the lead out of Amdur’s grip. He loped down the corridor with Amdur in pursuit. Sophie was going through the security barrier.
She stopped, propping up the door with her foot. “You were supposed to hold him!”
“He got away from me.”
“Fine, he can come visit the big bad boss.” She picked up the lion’s chain.
“NO!” Amdur said in a hoarse whisper. “Cott has a cat phobia. If he sees Cyrano, he’ll have a heart attack.”
“I thought that was the idea. Fine, take Cyrano in there.” She pointed to the women’s washroom directly opposite to where they were standing. “And don’t upset him.” She tossed him the lion’s lead. “Cyrano, walkies!”
Cyrano whimpered as she disappeared into the Minister’s office. Amdur hauled on his chain. By the time he’d dragged the lion into the washroom and shut the door, his arms throbbed with pain.
“Stay there!” Cyrano took shelter under the row of sinks, his tail lashing. Heart thumping, Amdur checked his phone. No messages. The two of them glared at each other.
Five minutes passed.
Sophie bragged she could handle any man. He hoped she was right. He creaked open the washroom door and peered out. Not a sound escaped the Minister’s office.
Cyrano bristling mane bumped against his leg. “Stay there. Don’t come near me.” The lion curled his flaccid blue upper lip and bared his teeth
His phone went off with a shrill cry. Judy’s name appeared on the screen.
“Ben, what’s happening?” Her words sounded slurred. “I’m going crazy down here. The media people, they’re…”
Cyrano let out a low growl. It did not sound like purring.
“Shut up, you! No, not you, Judy.”
His phone pinged. He cut Judy off.
A message. One word: “Help.”
I can think of a thousand ways this could go wrong…
He keyed an urgent text to Otto for the code to the security door.
Five more minutes passed. No reply.
Another message: “Help!”
Desperate now, he thought of the fire alarm.
“Cyrano, get up! Help, Sophie. Come on, get up!” He tugged on the lion’s chain.
He may as well have been reading Cyrano the ministry’s annual report. The lion merely yawned and rested his massive head on his front paws.
“You miserable waste of space! Well, bloody stay there!” He dropped the chain and burst out of the washroom. Where the hell was the fire alarm?
“Help!” A scream from the Minister’s office.
“Sophie!” He ran over to the barrier. Banged on the glass. Cyrano, trapped in the washroom, let out an echoing roar.
Two figures burst through the Minister’s door. A police officer, her uniform torn, revealing sexy red underwear. And a bulky man in a Japanese schoolgirl uniform brandishing a riding crop. Cott’s pale hairy buttocks and drooping appendage were a sight that seared into memory.
“Open it! Open up!” Sophie crashed her fists against the glass door.
Amdur, powerless to help, shouted: “I see you, Cott. There’s a witness.”
Cott seized Sophie by the throat. “Gimme that phone, you bitch!” Sophie tried to knee him in the crotch and missed.
Several things happened at once. The main elevator doors pinged and released a staggering Judy. Sophie thumped Cott in the eye. And Cyrano flew out of the washroom with a terrifying roar.
He leaped onto the security barrier. His forepaws hung over the top edge. His powerful hind legs scrabbled on the glass pane.
Otto, for God’s sake!
Numbers appeared on Amdur’s phone screen. He punched the code into the keypad. Tore open the security door.
Sophie burst free. Cott rushed after her, waving the riding crop. Amdur stuck out his foot. Cott tripped and fell. “Gimme that phone.” He scrabbled after Sophie.
Amdur kicked the security door shut, cutting off Cott’s escape.
A slithering sound. Cyrano glided down from the glass barrier. He bounded toward them.
Cott let out an unearthly shriek of pure terror.
“No, Cyrano! No!” Sophie grabbed for his chain. And missed.
Cyrano’s paw lashed through the air. Cott tumbled to the floor. The lion stood over him, drooling…
Sophie threw herself at Cyrano. She buried her face in his mane. Stroked his flanks.
“The media. They’re already here. They’re on their way up.” Judy choked out. “That’s what I tried to tell you.”
The lion’s pink tongue spilled over his vile-looking fangs. He let out a woof, reluctant to abandon Cott’s fat ass.
Sophie murmured to him. After what seemed like an eternity, Cyrano stepped away from Cott’s trembling form.
“Get out of here! Run, Judy!” Amdur pushed her in the direction of the freight elevator. “Sophie, get that animal moving.”
Sophie dashed down the corridor. The lion streaked after her in a four-footed animal run.
The main elevators pinged. The doors opened. A full media crew pouring out for the Minister’s press conference, lights and video cameras at the ready.
Cott staggered up, his garish make-up hideous under his curly blond wig. He saw the reporters and shrieked.
Amdur beat a hasty retreat back to the freight elevator. A clamor of voices and running feet rose behind him. No time to stop for a look. He unlocked the elevator and got it moving.
“Are you all right?”
Sophie nodded. She finished buttoning up her police uniform and handed him her phone. “I want that back. And this never happened.”
“Fair enough. Give me the keys to the van, Judy. You’re in no condition to drive.” She handed them over.
The elevator stopped. Ludmilla opened the door and signaled they were still in the clear.
He passed Judy’s keys to Sophie. “Leave the van outside my place. You know where I live.”
“Where are you going?”
“To Nickle’s farewell Christmas party.”
Back upstairs, he and Judy were engulfed by the crowd of partying civil serpents who spilled out of Amdur’s office, occupying every cubicle on the floor.
“I’m drunk,” Judy whispered.
“No worries. So is everybody else.”
Amdur located Otto by the buffet table . Potluck at the Ministry never failed to provide a feast and Otto’s paper plate was nearly folded in half under the weight of food.
“I especially recommend the lasagna, doctor.”
“Here.” Amdur slipped Otto Sophie’s phone.
“Be back, one minute.” Otto set down his plate and disappeared.
Amdur turned his attention to the wine table for a much-needed drink. He filled plates with food for him and Judy.
Ten minutes later, they heard shouts. Phones and computer screens flashed on around them.
“It’s Cott!” someone yelled. “Holy shit! Take a look at this.”
“He’s outside,” another person cried from the window. “No kidding. He’s running down Bay Street. There’s a TV crew after him.”
Food and wine were temporarily forgotten in the ensuing shock and awe. Otto returned and passed Sophie’s phone back to Amdur.
“How did you do that?” Amdur asked.
“Oh, a global internet tour via Mauritius. Untraceable. Better you should not ask.” Otto helped himself to Christmas cake.
On Christmas night, Amdur settled back in his study, a glass of cognac in his hand and Tiddles on his lap, to watch his favorite holiday movie, It’s a Wonderful Life. It certainly is, he thought. This is the best Christmas I’ve had in years.
The news story of Cott’s resignation still had legs two weeks later. The video showcasing his misadventures had millions of hits on websites throughout the world. American comedy shows trumpeted his antics with actors dressed up as moose and beavers. For once Canadians weren’t boring.
Amdur gave Tiddles a pat, happily digesting the Christmas dinner he’d enjoyed earlier with Judy and her mother. On the mantle over the fireplace, stood two postcards, one from Las Vegas, the other from Mauritius.
Snowflakes drifted slowly past the windows of his flat. And if he stared long and hard enough into Riverdale Park, he imagined they formed the dancing figure of a lion.