Autumn, and an old man's fancy turns to -- horror.
Bailey was a nice guy. Everybody thought so, especially his clients.
Bailey was an insurance adjuster. His work was always prompt and accurate. Even when clients submitted tenuous claims, he managed to safeguard the corporation's interests while maintaining the loyalty of its customers, increasing premiums notwithstanding.
For some reason, Bailey showed no interest in capitalizing on his superiors' high regard for his abilities. He could've enjoyed a corner office with a window, better perks, higher salary, but he seemed content to sit in his cubicle, entertaining a parade of clients, some bearing proof of their losses, none bearing him any malice for his courteous skepticism.
Bailey had another job, though his company, clients and even family knew nothing about it. His people skills came in handy for pursuits that some would regard as anything but "nice."
Bailey was also a courier. He conducted his "alternative" business right out of his cubicle. Some of his "clients" brought small packages and boxes that didn't contain anything remotely linked to insurance claims.
Most were stolen. Most were quite valuable, to the right buyer. Both buyers and sellers avoided direct contact with each other, preferring a nondescript middleman to arrange the exchange of goods for money.
Bailey almost never brought business home, but today was an exception, due to compelling circumstances.
He opened his front door and stepped in, shivering a bit. Before he shed his coat, he placed the blocky carrier on the living room floor, in range of a heat vent.
"Dad-deeee!" squealed Polly, his 2-year-old daughter and the light of his life, as she came running to collide with his legs, wrapping her arms around his calf. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a flimsy piece of colored sugar gelatin. "Yummy wums!" cried Polly, who could not yet manage the "r" and the hard "g" in "Gummy Worms." She grabbed it, stared at it intently for a second, then began chewing on one end.
He knelt to enfold her in a bear hug. "Are you happy to see me, or are you just after my Gummy Worms?" he asked with mock seriousness.
"Yummy wums!" she yelled, giggling.
Today's merchandise was atypical. "You are somewhat familiar with this product, I trust?" the seller had asked.
"I've done some background, if that's what you mean," replied Bailey. "I'm not a herpetologist."
"Kraits are small snakes, but few people survive a bite," said the seller. "Of course, there's no reason to expose yourself. Just set the insulated carrier in a warm place, and if our friend will be delayed at all, open the top so the terrarium can breathe."
The buyer would be delayed, but Bailey knew that, and wasn't worried. He and his family finished their supper. Donna started loading the dishwasher while Polly played with toys. Bailey was reading in the living room when the doorbell rang.
A small florist's van sat out front, and the man at the door, a mousy little fellow with rumpled hair and owlish glasses, carried a bouquet of flowers. Bailey asked him in; the flowers were for Donna, intended to mask his real intentions both from her and from passersby.
"You have the package?" asked the buyer, clearly eager and impatient.
"Of course," Bailey said. "Right over here -- let me get it."
They carefully placed the open carrier on the kitchen table, and Bailey lifted out the terrarium.
Bailey was dismayed to see the terrarium latch had come unsecured, and though it wasn't open, it was loose and ajar. Avoiding the buyer's gaze, Bailey surreptitiously closed the latch.
"I don't see anything," said the buyer. Bailey gently jiggled the terrarium, so that wood shavings, bark and leaves parted enough to reveal a black 6-inch tapered cylinder, a slender sinuous shape, burrowing diffidently back under the bedding.
"It's beautiful!" exclaimed the buyer. "I've never seen a live krait this close before. Hard to believe that that little thing could kill a man. Hell, 10 men!"
"You're a collector?" Bailey asked.
"On a small scale, yes," said the buyer. "Quality over quantity, you know."
"And you have the compensation?"
"Right here, yes," said the buyer, extracting a brown envelope from inside his coat. "My contribution to your commission is included as well."
Bailey reached into the envelope and shuffled its contents. "As we agreed," he concurred.
The buyer jostled the terrarium more vigorously, frowned, maneuvered into various angles to examine the debris, and then set it down. "Where's the other one?" he asked.
"Other one?" responded Bailey, puzzled.
"I'm paying for a breeding pair," said the buyer, indignantly. "What's the deal here?"
Pushing her choo-choo around the edges of the room, Polly steered away from the wall to skirt a large potted plant in the corner. She stopped and peered intently behind the container. She reached around it to extract a dark wiggly object. "Yummy wums!" she exulted. Holding it in front of her face, she inspected it briefly. "Yummy wums," she said more matter-of-factly.
Then she took a bite.
Jon Hauxwell, MD, is a retired family
physician who grew up in Stockton and now lives outside Hays.