A quick loop around the big cats, and then down toward the petting zoo. All the while, she was conscious of how she looked – map in hand, vigilantly searching for her companions. She wore a straw hat of her own over the dark blond wig and wide-framed sunglasses. She had on a plain T-shirt, boyfriend jeans, and the sport-shoe/ballet-flat hybrids that would let her run if she had to. Nothing about her would be particularly memorable.
Several shades of red hair had grabbed her attention throughout the course of her search, but many of them had been clearly unnatural. Others had been on women too old to be Erin, or too young, or holding extra children. Now she spotted one headed along the trail toward the Amazon exhibit – a long braid of golden-red hair swinging from beneath a white bucket hat. The woman was pushing a single stroller; it looked exactly like Alex’s, tan molded plastic with a dark green shade. She wore a sleeveless tank, and her arms were thick with freckles. Alex walked quickly after her.
The woman wasn’t moving fast; it didn’t take long for Alex to pass her. Alex kept her head down and glanced into the stroller as she walked alongside it.
The little girl looked right. Her face was turned away, but the fluffy blond hair seemed the same. Her size fit the profile.
Alex kept walking and beat the mother and daughter to the exhibit. She parked her stroller in the designated space beside the bathrooms, inconspicuously wiping the handle with the hem of her shirt before she removed her backpack and shrugged into it. Now that she was fairly certain the woman was Erin and that Erin had her own stroller, she didn’t need this one.
She located the woman and child dawdling along the trail. A larger group had caught up to them and flowed around them from both sides. Alex could see the woman’s face clearly now – it was definitely Carston’s daughter. Erin had paused to offer Olivia a sippy cup.
The path was getting more crowded. It was hot, and the wig was making her head itch and sweat. The straw hat wasn’t helping.
Alex focused on an empty bench about ten feet ahead of the duo. There was another large crowd behind the first. If she timed it right, she could intercept Erin at the bench while the second crowd was passing.
Alex moved purposefully back the way she’d just come, watching through her dark glasses to see if anyone was paying attention to her. The first group – a loud extended family, it looked like, with several toddlers, multiple parents, and one older woman in a wheelchair – enveloped her for a moment. She dodged through them and then slowed a bit.
The second crowd was all adults – foreign tourists on a day trip, she guessed, many of them wearing fanny packs – and they reached Erin as she was almost to the bench. Alex moved against the flow until she was just ahead of her quarry. As Erin passed a foot away from the bench, Alex turned, twisting around an older man, and pretended to stumble. She reached out and grabbed Erin’s hand on the stroller handle. Her palm mashed the pouch of clear fluid and forced it empty with one strong squeeze.
“Hey!” Erin said, turning.
Alex ducked back, twisting partially behind the closest guest. Erin came face to face with the bald septuagenarian.
“Excuse me,” he said hesitantly to both of them, not sure how he’d become entangled. He pulled free of Alex and stepped around Erin and the stroller.
Alex watched as Erin blinked once, then again. Her eyelids seemed to get stuck on the second blink. Alex jumped forward and grabbed Erin around the waist as she started to crumple, then jerked her toward the bench so that they fell heavily onto it together. Alex jammed her elbow against the wooden back; it would leave a bruise, but one she could easily cover. Erin was taller and weighed more than Alex, so Alex wasn’t able to keep them from slumping awkwardly. Alex loosed a slightly manic laugh – hopefully anyone watching would think they were playing around.
The little girl was singing to herself inside the stroller. She hadn’t seemed to notice that she’d stopped moving. Alex extricated herself from the mother and pulled the stroller closer, angling it so that Olivia was facing away from Erin.
Erin lolled on the bench, her head falling onto her right shoulder and her mouth hanging open.
A third conglomeration of visitors moved past them. No one stopped. Alex was operating quickly, so she couldn’t keep close tabs on any reaction, but no one had raised an alarm yet.
She pulled the bucket hat lower over Erin’s face, shading her lifeless expression. Out of the side pocket of her backpack, Alex drew the little perfume bottle. She reached around the edge of the stroller’s shade and pressed the nozzle down for two seconds. The singing ceased, and then Alex felt the light thud through the plastic frame of the stroller as the child fell back against the seat.
Moving as casually as she could, Alex patted Erin’s shoulder, then stood up and stretched.
“I’ll get her some lunch, you go ahead and rest,” Alex said, smoothing the wig under her hat in case her tumble had disarranged it. She glanced around, eyes hidden behind her glasses. No one seemed to be focused on the little tableau she’d created. She grasped the stroller’s handle and started moving back toward the parking lot. At first she kept the pace easy. She looked toward the animal cages like the others were doing. As she got farther from the bench, she began moving faster. A mother with an afternoon appointment.
Outside the bathroom at the visitors’ center, she parked the stroller and pulled Olivia into her arms. The child had to weigh over thirty pounds and felt heavier because her body was slack. Alex tried to arrange the unconscious child into the same position she’d seen other parents use – straddling one hip, legs on either side, head cradled on the shoulder. It didn’t feel like she’d gotten it right, but she had to move anyway. She gritted her teeth and walked as quickly as she could through the gate. She wished she’d been able to park closer, but eventually, with sweat soaking her T-shirt, she reached the car.