"Liz", Mattie said.
Liz turned. She looked suspicious; face thinner, eyes harder as she sought out the source of her name.
"Hey!" Liz said, finally recognizing Mattie. She blew a stream of smoke out of the corner of her mouth and flicked the butt into the gutter.
They hugged. Liz smelled like an expensive cologne and cigarette smoke.
"Let's get off the street," she said.
They sat across from one another at a small table. The coffee bar was almost empty, the morning rush already over. "I almost didn't recognize you with your trendy short hair," Liz said. "You look great, Mattie. Really."
Mattie felt herself blush and self-consciously touched her hair that was pulled back in a ponytail. Back in high school it had been long, straight and parted down the middle - your basic no style hairstyle. Now it was the same only shorter. She desperately needed a restyle or something but it didn't seem to be a priority – until she went out with Bodine and his fashionista friends.
Liz had one side of her head shaved nearly to the crown, then a shock of thick black hair swept up and over the opposite side. Mattie counted six earrings up the lobe of her left ear. It was a severe style but it seemed perfectly suited for Liz.
There was an awkward silence.
"So what have you been up to, Liz? Where are you working?"
"You know, I do a bit of waitressing and help my Mom in the salon."
"Your mother owns a beauty salon?"
"Oh yeah, in a strip mall on King George just a little further down."
"And you're a licensed stylist?"
Liz laughed. "No, kind of learned by doing." She sipped her coffee. Mattie noticed studded chain bracelets on the slender wrist and a silver ring forged like a coiled snake, it's head poised to strike.
"I remember your grandfather was sick," Liz said.
"He died two years ago."
"That's too bad." Liz reached across the table and touched Mattie's hand. Her nails were lacquered black.
Mattie wasn't one of those people who found it cathartic to revisit tragic life events. "So, tell me about the reptiles," she said.
"Yeah, well I do these presentations at schools for The Reptile Refuge, take the herps, let the kids have a hands-on experience, answer questions, talk about responsible ownership, conservation, you know, sort of what you did that time in science class with your birds."
"This time when I came back there were cops everywhere. I mean, who wants to get involved with that? Anyhow, I took the herps back to my place. What else could I do?"
"Do you know what happened?"
"Not really. Maybe the guy broke in, tried to steal a snake and it bit him."
"Do you have poisonous snakes on display?
"No, they're illegal to bring into the province, but Lee, he's the owner, had rescued a couple of rare ones and kept them."
"He had in mind to sell the venom."
"There's a market for snake venom?"
"You bet. It can go for as much as five hundred dollars a gram."
"To be used for what?"
"Medical research mostly. Stuff like cancer drugs."
This was sounding preposterous. Did Liz think a crazed scientist broke into The Reptile Refuge to steal a snake to extract its venom to further his research? How many scientists were "known to police"? But then, did it really matter what had happened at the refuge? After all, she was here to help Liz with the animals.
"Why doesn't he just come forward and explain all this to the RCMP?" Mattie said.
"I don't know. I don't know where he is. I'm worried about him." Liz chewed on her thumbnail. "But right now I need to get into the refuge and get some lights, heating mats and other stuff including food."
"For the herps: mice, crickets, meal worms. Iggy's the only vegetarian in the bunch. The rest need live food and it isn't cheap. It's all at the refuge I just need someone to help me bring it back to my place."
Mice, crickets, mealworms? How would Bodine feel about transporting rodents and insects in his one hundred and fifty thousand dollar vehicle? What if one escaped and chewed on the semi-aniline leather seats?
Liz finished her coffee. "It's only twenty minutes away."
Mattie waited in the car while Liz had a cigarette. Her friend's story had more holes in it than the jeans she wore. And what had she been doing for the past five years? Concentrate on the animals, Mattie told herself. Get the equipment and then maybe back off.
Liz got into the car, dug around in her leather bag, pulled out a designer cologne spray bottle and spritzed her neck and chest.
"It's called Candy, want some?"
"No, thanks." Candy by Prada, Bodine had bought it for her and Mattie had hated the sweet cloying scent. Ever the frugal person she'd returned it to The Bay and was amazed when they gave her a store credit for ninety-eight dollars.
"Cool ride," Liz said.
"It's not mine."
"Really? You sign some kind of agreement with your boyfriend?"
"Couples who have been living together for two years are entitled to a fifty-fifty split of assets."
"Are you sure?"
"Oh yeah, Carla's done it twice, that's why she's got the house."
"My mother. She seems to stick it out with a guy just long enough to cash in. I mean, I don't know if it's like intentional, but she doesn't come away empty handed. Mind you she's got their kids to look after."
"Yeah, I've got two half brothers, we all have different fathers. Jax is nine and Eno just turned four."
"What about your father?"
"Dead. Construction accident."
Now it was Mattie's turn to express her condolences.
"I was just nine months old. Hey, you can't miss what you've never had."
Mattie knew that as an outright lie. More than anything she missed having a loving mother. Sometimes you didn't know how much you missed something until you saw other people with it, like Bodine and his mother. Then you realized why you were the person you were and maybe how you filled that emptiness in your life in other ways, sometimes not so healthy ways. Mattie had learned more about Liz in the last half hour than she had during their entire friendship in high school. She had a feeling she was going to learn more. She wasn't sure she wanted to.
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