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‘Brazilian rainforest mice’? Joel wasn’t sure whether that kind of mouse agreed with him, but since he had been eating them (and other things) for a while it was probably all right. Joel hated stomachaches, and therefore he was normally very careful with what he ate. ‘You can’t be too careful,’ was his motto, but this time he had been too hungry to bother to check properly beforehand exactly what he was eating. Luck, his trusted ally, had been on his side this time too, so why worry?
Joel wasn’t too bothered either by the familiar but mercifully distant clanging of metal against metal and ho-ho-ho-ing which sometimes came to him from another part of the floor. Thankfully apparently it had been decided that pets didn’t need that kind of thing in their immediate vicinity.
All the same it was a welcome break in the monotony of eating and sleeping and Joel’s scattered speculations as to how he was going to get back to the park when a familiar face turned up right underneath him in the pet department.
Wearing the same old coat as before the policeman looked a little lost as if he was searching for something or somebody.
When Joel lowered his head, he could hear the policeman singing along with the even here ever-present ‘music’:
“Noel, Noel, da-da da da Noel. Noel, Noel, Noel Noel!” he went.
This was more than Joel could tolerate so he stuck out his tongue practically in the policeman’s face:
“The name is JOEL, not Noel!” he snarled. He was good and tired of people getting his name wrong. It had got to stop. Now.
If the policeman was surprised to see Joel he tried not to show it:
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.”
“Hmf!” said Joel.
“Really.” The policeman sounded sincere, so Joel decided to let him off with a warning, this time.
“So, you’re looking for me?” he asked.
“You? No, I… No, not you,” the policeman said.
Joel was a little disappointed but tried not to show it.
“Too bad about that Santa-guy,” he said making conversation.
“Yes, a terrible business.”
“I don’t know about that,” Joel mused, “I would have said he had it coming.”
“Yes, so I hear.” The policeman seemed to be the kind of human being you could actually talk to sensibly, at least he only flinched a little each time Joel stuck his tongue out.
“So, you got any suspects?” he inquired.
“No, no suspects as such…”
“You might want to look into rare tropical poisons,” Joel suggested. That was all the hint Joel was going to give the poor confused policeman.
“Why do you say that?”
“You figure it out, you’re the detective.”
That was as far as he got when the manager stormed into the pet department causing Joel to withdraw his head to the safety of the green stuff on the wire.
For some reason the manager seemed furious with the poor policeman:
“What do you mean coming here harassing MY people and MY store?” she almost screamed at him. “Don’t you flatfeet have anything better to do than try to wreck my store as well as my career as a businesswoman? Don’t you think it’s hard enough for a woman to make it in this dog-eat-dog world of business?”
“I’m sure it is, but…” the policeman tried, but was immediately cut short by the manager who seemed as angry as ever.
“There are only a few shopping days left before Christmas, for goodness sake! I don’t need you snooping around my store looking for what you call it CLUES! There are no clues here!”
“As a matter of fact, I just got a very useful clue from…” The policeman pointed up to where Joel had been, but of course he wasn’t there anymore.
“Don’t give me that!” the manager interrupted him again. That Santa drank himself to death! End of story! Now get out of my store before I get really angry!”
Joel didn’t see how that was possible.
The policeman pulled a pad and a pencil out of his coat pocket.
“Now that you mention it, we did check Santa for alcohol, but whereas he wasn’t exactly sober he wasn’t nearly drunk enough suddenly to keel over the way he did.”
“So, we have to keep looking…”
“You have to keep bothering ME, you mean! And bothering MY animals too now apparently!”
“As a matter of fact one of them just…”
“Out I said! Out of my store!”
The manager took hold of the policeman’s coat with (for a woman) surprising force and proceeded to drag it, along with its contents, out of the pet department in the direction of the elevators.
“You can’t do this to me,” the policeman protested feebly.
“Watch me,” was the manager’s reply.
“But I’m a policeman!”
That was the last thing Joel heard before the elevator-doors closed behind the two people.
Imagine getting into an argument, even into some kind of physical fight, over something as trivial as a Santa who was already dead! Joel would never understand people, that much was certain. Their strange priorities were only the beginning of it.
Oh well, luckily that wasn’t his problem, so Joel just selected his dish of the day, a medium-sized rare swamp frog (at least that was what the salesperson had called it once), topped off with an iguana-egg, and upon completion of his meal, he retired to the privacy of his ‘branch’ to digest.
Apparently however rare swamp frogs aren’t as nutritious as other frogs, so already early the next day Joel found himself in the mood for some mouse which on the spur of the moment turned into two mice who soon after manifested themselves as a nice pair of bumps on Joel’s body.
Following that exertion Joel felt a little drowsy and not at all like climbing all the way back up to his ‘branch’, so he stayed behind in the mice’s enclosure a little bit longer than usually, and why ever not?
That was when a woman who looked slightly familiar to Joel walked into the pet department. She seemed to be in a hurry for some reason, but then everybody Joel had seen since he’d moved into the department store had had that hurried, worried look in their eyes, a slightly scared look, as if they were afraid they weren’t going to be able to get everything done in time. He had even overheard someone saying something about this Christmas-time being the most stressful time of the entire year, but that again was people for you: Always creating problems for themselves where before there were none. If only they could learn to relax like him!
Joel burped. Perhaps he had eaten too fast after all. Perhaps he too had been infected with this human stress-thing?
No, he didn’t think so. It was nothing a bit of peaceful digesting couldn’t take care of. As it turned out something quite different was in store for Joel, which he was going to find out about very soon.
The slightly familiar woman was talking to the salesperson:
“You gotta help me!” she pleaded. “I need something for my kid right away!”
“Certainly, madam. How about a nice guinea pig? All kids love guinea pigs. They’re so soft, warm and fluffy and very affectionate and loyal…”
“I don’t think so. You see, my kid got it into his head he wants a snake for Christmas.”
“A snake?” The salesperson got a sad look in her eyes. “I don’t think we have any snakes in stock at the moment. Maybe after the new year…”
“But I gotta have one now! Christmas is tomorrow, you know!”
“Yes, I know, madam, but I’m very sorry. How about a lizard instead? We’ve got some lovely lizards, very affectionate and loyal…”
“No, no. It’s gotta be a snake and nothing else!” The woman looked desperately around the cages and fish tanks catching sight of Joel who had raised his head the better to listen in on the conversation.
“I’m sorry, madam, but I really can’t help you…”
“What about that one?” The woman pointed to Joel.
“Which one, madam?”
“That one there!” The woman came closer to Joel still pointing rudely.
“That’s a snake, isn’t it?”
Now Joel remembered. This was the woman whose kid had kept pointing to him and getting scolded for it. It seemed the woman herself had already forgotten what she had said about it being impolite to point. Perhaps she was the kind who thought it was all right for grownups to do certain things but not for children to do the same things.
The salesperson had followed the woman and now stood besides her staring at Joel.
“Yes, that’s a snake alright,” she had to admit.
Well, congratulations! Perhaps she knew a little something about animals after all.
“I’ll take him!” the woman said.
“I don’t know how I could have missed… I was sure…” The salesperson was still staring at Joel who got a little embarrassed for her. It was as though she had never seen a real snake before!
“Wrap him up for me, will you? I’m in a bit of a hurry!”
The woman was already pulling out her wallet and going back to the counter.
Before Joel could react (even if he had bothered to) the salesperson expertly had grabbed him right behind the head and was carrying him back to the counter where she placed him in a special animal-transporter type box-thing with grated windows and little holes for air on top.
“Hmf!” Joel said a little annoyed with the rough treatment, but truth be told he was too full to actually do anything about it. Oh well, maybe this was the first step back to his beloved park.
The salesperson was giving instructions to the woman:
“Remember not to gift-wrap until the last possible minute. He needs to be able to breathe.”
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