Margaret Brewster hated hospitals. All the smells and beeping and alarms and every room looking like someone was ready to croak at any moment made her batty. She had driven around three accidents, her car's engine had caught on fire and there was a chemical spill diverting traffic on the way. But she was here. She adjusted her lace gloves and thought about the vial of powder in her pocket.
Ethel Brewster was as alert and bright eyed as ever, god damn her. Margaret needed Ethel to sign that will and then she needed her to go to the Lord. She'd tell her she was hiring the best team of nurses to wipe her healing hemorrhoids at home and then when Ethel went to meet Jesus today in a prearranged freak accident the money would be hers.
Ethel had perfect hair folded into a perfect white bun. She was propped up in bed with a tray of white pureed something that smelled horrific on her lap. “Come in!” she said, like a ray of sunshine.
“You're awake!” Margaret said. But not for long, she thought.
“Oh it's good to see you,” Edith said. “Come in and meet my new friend, the angel of death.” Margaret ignored the demented woman's words. She came in for an embrace that involved as little touching as possible. With her left hand, she dropped the white powder directly into the puddle of peaches on the beside table.
My whole life, such a struggle, she thought. She thought of the perfume business she had begun in college, only to find that her prized scent was a replica of the chemical mice secreted while in heat. It was banned in several countries. Whole families had died from rodent attacks. She thought of her life of tragedy, of the meteorite that had hit her Porsche while she was sunbathing in Las Vegas. But today, today the fortune is mine, and the struggle is over, she thought.
Margaret sat down, carefully checking the chair for anything resembling moisture.
Edith gestured towards a pet crate in the back of the room. “This is Muffins, the death angel. Some people use the word “Grim Reaper”. But you don't like that kind of language, do you Muffins?” Edith smiled at the crate. It was too dark to see inside.
“The angel of – what? How did you get a dog in here? Margaret said.
Ethel just closed her eyes. “Muffins is everywhere, since the beginning of time,” she said. “She was with Jack when he blew up in the forest and with Grandpa Joe in the electrical fire and with Great grandpa Steve when he was swept up in the inland hurricane. She's helped generations of us go to meet Jesus, and we didn't even know she was there.”
She's absolutely insane, Margaret thought. “You never even kept a goldfish when I was growing up, Ethel,” she said. “Jack had a dog but it spontaneously caught fire and exploded when I was a baby, you know that. So when did you get a pet?”
She placed her giant feathered hat on the floor, then thought better of it and put it back on her head. With her right hand she quickly showered herself with a stress-relieving shot of perfume. A long, low moan that reminded Margaret of a horror movie she had watched as a child about Medusa came mysteriously from the curtain-enclosed bed next to them.
“No perfume in the hospital, ma'am,” said a nurse from outside.
“Oh please!” she fired back “everything here smells like the apocalypse anyway.”
Behind them suddenly, in the hallway, a group of men in blue scrubs ran in unison towards a door, where an agonized final groan was silenced by the pulling of a long glass door.
Ethel ignored all of that. She smiled and took a giant spoonful of peaches. So that white trash is peaches. Six hours from now you'll be dead in your bed and Jack's money will be mine.
“I brought the papers you wanted,” Margaret said, can we please get down to this so I can get out of here. “Just a quick signature.”
“Oh that's so kind,” Ethel said, “from the attorney and all! Oh I hate that you went all that way though. Did Madsen not tell you?”
“Madsen? No, no word from Madsen.” I spent forty five minutes on the interstate. Madsen was Margaret's brother, who until word had gotten around about hemorrhoid surgery had lived a comfortable, happy life of alcoholism and apparently also auto racing thousands of miles away in Hawaii.
“Oh what a waste of your day! Well Madsen was just here and then he left. The angel of death arrived just after him.”
“Madsen was – here?” Margaret said.
“Oh yes! You just missed him! We signed off the will and now it's all done and when the Lord calls me, I can go in peace.”
Madsen he had arrived in California and demonstrated to Ethel his deep desire for sobriety, his changed heart, his new love for Jesus. And Ethel, a life long teetotaler, had not stopped talking about him since her hemorrhoid surgery. Two nights in the hospital for a swollen asshole. Thousands of dollars. And now that vulture, swooping in from the Pacific. “The Lord isn't calling you to heaven via hemorrhoid,” Margaret laughed, nervously.
“He works in mysterious ways.” She pointed to the Bible by her bed. “The angel of death comes in a form that no one expects.” She looked Margaret straight in the eyes and whispered. “You might even think it's a cute little animal. Only it's there to bring you to the Lord. Not a tall man with a sickle. No, no. But it's Muffins who helped me. Muffins helped me see just what I needed to do. She showed me that she's been there my whole life, guiding me along, my guardian angel. And now the money's safe and I'm safe to meet the Lord.”
Oh God. The money. Uncle Jack had a fortune. The demented hag had done something with it. Jack had left Ethel all that money that she didn't deserve. Margaret winced and tried to not look as angry as she felt. “Where- where did, uh, Muffins the Death Angel tell you to leave the money?” she said. Six hours till she's off this mortal coil, she thought. That's long enough.
Suddenly the alarms started beeping and here came that group of blue – scrubbed men, running, like a flock of birds. But to their room now.
“It's time! Goodbye!” Ethel said, “goodbye! Goodbye Muffins!”
No! Margaret thought, it's too soon! She tried to jab the pen and paper in Ethel's face. Suddenly the alarms were singing and there were big men pounding on Ethel's chest and nurses directing orders this way and that. The woman in the adjacent bed moaned again like a subterranean animal. And then there was a tall man standing by Margaret's side wearing a stethoscope. “Hemorrhoid surgery,” he shook his head. “Who would have guessed that'd be the end?”
Margaret watched the blue shirted men thumping away.
They sat together in the bald lawyer's wood paneled office two days later, Margaret wearing a lace dress and Madsen, that son of a bitch, looking like a bookie at the racetrack. He wore a shirt with palm trees, untucked, a little bit of hairy beer belly peeking out above his khaki shorts. Margaret decided to keep her sunglasses on and call it bereavement. But she had been thinking non-stop about which drag-racing hussie Madsen was going to send it to now. It amazed her how anyone so frumpy and obviously out of shape can do what he did for a living and dare to call it a sport.
The bald lawyer shuffled a bit in his chair. “Yes – well – thank you for coming – I'm sorry about the, er, unusual circumstances.”
Madsen smiled a gotcha smile under his mustache at Margaret while the man looked down and shuffled his papers. So blatant, she thought. She kept her sunglasses on and watched his beady eyes.
“We've never had a situation quite like – well not exactly – similar but -” said the attorney.
“Out with it, out,” said Margaret. “We'll all miss Ethel but my grief – our grief will only be assuaged her wishes are known..” Madsen rolled his eyes.
“Well, it's comforting to know the aardvark will be well cared for, that's all,” the attorney said. “Such a symbol of your family.”
Both of them sat in stunned silence.
“I assume you were both close to Muffins, from the description made by Mrs. Brewster in her will? To give all the family's fortune to a creature of such importance historically to your family...”
“Oh yes, yes, Ethel's precious, perfect Muffin,” Margaret said.
“Who the bloody hell is Muffin,” Madsen stammered.
“Technically the name is Muffins, as in plural, but yes, there's only one aardvark, apparently.”
Madsen and Margaret looked at each other. “She left her money to an aardvark?” Madsen said.
“The precious, precious aardvark,” Margaret said, shaking her head.
“I thought she had a poodle,” Madsen said.
“Would that it were so simple,” said the attorney. “We've handled cases where the departed have left their fortunes to their pets. Those cases are unusual but..manageable. This is somewhat more...complicated.”
“Look,” Madsen said. “The old bat was a little bit crazy, but whatever scratch she left to the bird, I'm the one living here in town now, so I'll be taking care of everything it needs...”
“An aardvark is a bit more pig-like, actually,” the attorney said. “In this case, however, caring for the aardvark is not what's required. Mrs. Brewster actually wants the aardvark to-well..”
Margaret grabbed the paper from the desk, exasperated, ripping it from the lawyer's hands. She read in stunned silence before throwing the document on the desk. “She wants the aardvark to die. She wants us to kill it.”
“Her words are, ahem, 'send naturally to the afterlife', but yes. You will divide the money once Muffins the aardvark has a peaceful death, which you are to arrange,” the lawyer said. And he lifted the crate from behind the desk, the same one Margaret recognized from the hospital. Inside a tiny smiling pig-like creature stared back at them.
Margaret lifted the heavy crate with the fat animal inside.
“You should also know,” the lawyer said as they stared at the beast, “that Ethel's specific words are that she believes this aardvark is unkillable. She used the words 'angel of death' several times.”
“You believe any of that?” said Madsen.
“I believe that once the ashes of the animal are on my desk, you're to split a twenty million dollar fortune,” the lawyer said.
“I don't know where the hell she got an aardvark,” Madsen said, as they stood outside in the sunshine. “She hated animals.”
“She said it came to her. Her guardian angel. Or the death angel. I don't know. Did you talk her into this?”
“Are you crazy? I wanted her to give the money to me,” Madsen said. “If I had to guess I'd bet you put her up to this.”
“I didn't. She told me the aardvark helped her make up her mind. But it doesn't matter. She was demented. We’ll have to split care of the beast, “ Margaret said. “I know a top notch small animal veterinarian in Los Angeles. I play bridge with his wife. We’ll arrange a quick euthanasia...”
“I say we just throw the thing off the nearest building and that’s the ballgame,” Madsen said.
“You heard the lawyer,” Margaret said. “A natural death. Or the contract is void.”
“So it naturally falls off a building and then we naturally inherit the money. Try proving to me it didn’t happen,” Madsen said.
“Don't be cruel, Madsen. The creature has a certain charming character.” She looked in the cage and tried to smile at the creature. It was small and fat and grinned at her.
“Look, lady, I’ll take it to your vet, that’s fine, “ Madsen said. “You have no idea what I endured to get here. My plane caught fire and someone brought a emotional support snake on board. And there was an outbreak of murder hornets in the airport. In the airport! We can figure out how to feed it and for now it can stay in my garage. OK?”
“And you won’t do anything stupid?” she said.
“Nothing stupid. I’ve got more space than you do here so let me keep it for now. OK?”
They were standing in front of his yellow Porsche. She relinquished the heavy, smelly cage to him with a sigh of relief and he stuck it in the backseat.
Margaret knee he was on his way to dump the fat pig in the river and take the money. It was a good thing she had made arrangements. She watched as the car pulled down the drive, turned her back and gave herself two puffs of perfume and marveled at her face in a small compact mirror. In the glass of the mirror she could see the yellow sportscar burst into flames about a mile away, aardvark and driver exploding into bits. She smiled a little as sirens wailed past her towards the site of the explosion.
Margaret laughed, a hearty deep laugh, and then suddenly her laugh became a choke and she was gagging and coughing and on her knees to the ground, unable to catch her breath. The perfume, poisoned! Madsen, that son of a bitch, she thought to herself.
“Such a tragic tale, “ the brown haired lawyer said to the bald lawyer as they sat together over drinks in the wood paneled office the next day. “The police are saying she rigged the car, and that he poisoned the perfume?”
“So it appears, so it appears. Siblings,” he sighed.
“A tale without redemption,” the bald one said. “I wish it was so easy. That's a theory, but the coroner still says their deaths are quite mysterious.”
“I’m guessing the aardvark had no living descendants?” the brown haired one said. They both had a laugh at this. Behind them they had mounted, on a solid gold plaque, the recovered body of the aardvark. The taxidermist had done a wonderful job with the reconstruction.
“What did she call it ? The death angel? Unavailable? It looks quite dead to me,” he said.
“Can’t say any of the paper chasers at Richter and Sloan have a solid gold stuffed aardvark to their name, “ the bald one laughed. “All that money going into probate. You and I split the case, split the fortune. That’s a fine arrangement,” he said. They tapped their glasses together and took a drink. “Fools and their money are soon parted,” he said.
“Hear hear,” said the brown haired man.
“One thing left on my mind, “ the bald one said, wiping his chin. “You believe in curses or anything?”
“What do you mean, curses?” He took a puff of the big cigar.
“Ok. The lady, she died after surgery right?”
“Hemorrhoid surgery is fraught with complications,” the brown haired one said.
“Then the two kids – well, they're both batty of course? I’m not saying they didn’t deserve it. But to blow up -and- be poisoned? I mean, it does rankle the mind a bit.”
“You’ve been reading too much,” the bald one said.
“How did grandfather die?”
“Freak hunting accident. He walked onto a landmine he found in the forest. And then the other grandfather froze to death. ”
“Froze to death. He lived in Tucson.”
“Perhaps, perhaps. But you’re so paranoid,” said the bald man. He looked at the aardvark mounted to the wall. Then the bald man carefully eyed the brown haired man’s cigar, thought about the nightshade he had carefully mixed inside it, and looked at his watch and thought about how everything would fall into place around eight PM that evening. The brown haired man looked back at him thought about the cyanide, lining the rim of the bald man's glass.
From the wall Muffins the aardvark looked down at both of them and was very pleased.