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"Don't go near that lion's cage, Mother dear, tonight--"
The girl stepped close to John J. Malone and said softly "You're singing it wrong. It's 'them lion cage.'"
The little Chicago lawyer wheeled around, started to say "Sorry, the lion is busy," thought better of it, and stared at her. She was lovely, she was blonde, and she looked like a small-scale lady lion. A kitten-sized lion, Malone decided.
"It goes this way, Mr. Malone," she whispered. She was about five foot one with her shoes on. She smiled and sang,
"Don't go near them lion cage,
Mother dear, tonight,
Them lions is excited
And you know that they could bite--"
Malone came right back at her with:
"When they get them awful fits,
They'll chew you into little bits--"
She laughed, and said, "We seem to have come out of the same circus. Let's be friends. I have a feeling you'll need one. Want to meet one of your clients?"
It was a small tent show, in a smaller town. Malone let the girl lead him over ropes, around tent stakes, past canvas, and, finally, to the cages.
"There he is," the girl said, "and his name is Leopold. My name, in case you care, is Bitsy. Short for Itsy Bitsy, on account of I'm so tall. Let's you make friends with your client." She started to unlock the door to the cage.
"We can make friends just as well through the bars," Malone said hastily, grabbing her hand.
Leopold gave the lawyer a nasty look. Malone gave it right back to him. He hoped his breath wasn't as bad as Leopold's. He reached a tentative hand through the bars and said, hesitantly, "Nicekitty."
Leopold growled that the next person who said "nice kitty," to him was going to have his right arm chewed off. He added a remark in a growl that was heard half-way to Gary, Indiana, backed off into a corner of the cage, cuddled his head on one paw, and snarled a goodbye.
"To know him is to love him," Bitsy said. "All 550 pounds of him. You'd better come and meet Pops."
"Since he's paying for this," Malone said acidly, "perhaps I'd better."
She led him through the lot to one of an assortment of trailers, a fancy one painted with red and green stripes, and adorned with a gaudy sign that read "Hardcastle's Circus."
"Pops!" she called, as she pushed open the door.
Malone's eyes adjusted themselves to the dim light. The interior of the trailer was a neat little room with a spotless kitchenette, two easy chairs, a studio couch, and half-a-hundred photographs of lions pasted on the plywood walls.
Pops rose from one of the easy chairs to meet them. Malone's first thought was that he was at least nine feet tall. At a second glance he scaled it down to a mere six foot four. Pops Hardcastle had a crop of snow white hair as thick as a lion's mane, and a haggard face that was, right now, wet with tears.
"You're Mr. Malone. Good." New tears began to flow. "Mr. Malone, someone is killing my cats." He reached under his plaid wool shirt for a dirty wallet. "You'll want a down payment, a retainer, a--what-you-call-it--"
"Later," Malone said. He was beginning to feel uncomfortably cold. What had possessed him to come out here chasing wild geese, to find himself among maniacs and wild animals?
"Mr. Malone, I loved those cats. And they died. They were killed. It's not the money. Heaven knows, you can live without money. It takes a lot of money to replace a big cat these days, but--who would deliberately kill one? Bitsy showed you Leopold--would you kill a cat like that?" The tears began to run down his face again.
"Take it easy, Pops," Bitsy said from the door.
"It must be some crazy person," Pops said. He blew his nose.
"Blow one for me," Malone said quietly, "and tell me the story."
Pops blew his nose again. Malone said, "Thank you," and shut up.
"Tell you, hell," Pops said. "I'll show you. Maybe you'd best have a drink first--"
Malone said, "Gin, straight, and thanks."
It was behind the trailer, under a tarpaulin. A dead lion.
Once that lion had roared his way through the jungle--or sneered at visitors in the zoo. Or travelled with a small-time circus. Now, he was dead, and the late October flies swarmed over his body. King of the Beasts, dead in the dirt behind a cheap trailer, and with only the moon to mourn him.
"His name," Pops Hardcastle said reverently, "was Goliath."
"Cause of death unknown," Malone murmured. "Now, talk."
"He was killed," Hardcastle said, "he was murdered!" He drew a long, slow breath. "All right, Mr. Malone. Someone is killing my cats. Maybe Leopold next. The first--" He drew another breath. "It was in a suburb of Columbus. Maybe you understand, Mr. Malone, we don't play big cities but--"
"Go on," Malone said, savagely chewing on his cigar, and trying to keep his eyes away from the murdered Goliath.
"Maybe we'd better talk this over in my office," Pops Hardcastle said. His face was beginning to pale.
"Maybe we'd better talk it over right here," Malone said.
"This lioness--her name was Linda. I named her that because she was so beautiful--"
"Keep talking," Malone said.
"She was beautiful--beyond belief. Golden. Pure gold. But she died--she was murdered, Malone. And so was Goliath. And Leopold will be next." His grey face began to turn more grey. "Mr. Malone, I love my cats--" His knees began to buckle. "And if someone is killing them--"
Malone caught him as he fell.
Posted January 14, 2010
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