Gavin stood inside the entry and faced his store. He sighed. Charred boxes, half-melted merchandise, walls stained black—it was an eyesore, but what could he do? And then there was the smell. Even near-toxic levels of air freshener could not hide it. He could have curled up into a ball and cried, but there were bills to pay.
The keys on his belt jingled as he felt for the key to the roller door. The sound was different that day. Eight years of standing in that spot every Monday through Saturday morning, hearing the lazy rumble of engines as cars began pulling into the car park outside, feeling the expectation of happy customers and a frequently ringing cash register, had conditioned him to feel invigorating optimism at the rattling of his keys. It took just one weekend to break that conditioning.
As the rickety old roller door thundered its way up, 8 a.m. sunshine streamed through the entrance. In the car park, two uncertain customers got out of their vehicles. Gavin carried the sandwich board sign out front and set it in place. FIRE SALE. DAMAGED STOCK 80% OFF. Those words, written in thick strokes of yellow chalk, hit him like a punch to the stomach.
Business was slow, and sombre, for the first hour, but then it picked up. People wanted to know the story. Some of them had seen the red glow lighting up the Friday night sky. They were sympathetic, and they were ready to spend. Gavin showed them the discounted goods: scorched dog collars, two burnt scratching posts, ash stained fish tanks, slightly melted rubber squeaky toys, bird cages bent from where a shelf had collapsed on them, five-kilogram bags of birdseed (that one was just an overstock) and a terrarium speckled with soot. They all sold. No profit, but it was money in the till.
About 10 o’clock, a man walked in wearing a black suit. The watch on his left wrist was fat and gold. He lifted his sunglasses and scanned the room, then approached the counter. He looked over his shoulder, then leaned toward Gavin and said with a knowing raise of his eyebrows, “Where’s the good stuff?”
Gavin stood up and motioned to the front of the store. “Everything over there is undamaged. Anything in particular you’re after?”
The man shook his head and leaned in closer. “No. Listen, I want the good stuff.” He stared at Gavin for a second, then nodded.
“I can assure you, Sir,” said Gavin, “all of our best stock is there at the front of the store.”
The man looked over his shoulder again, and then back at Gavin. “You had a fire here, yes?”
“So it must have been mighty hot. Hot enough to melt things,” said the man, with a wink.
“I’m not sure I understand you,” said Gavin.
“All right,” said the man. “I’ll shoot straight. I want a half dog-half mouse. In good condition.”
Gavin blinked. His lips began to form a word, but then lost it.
“It’s simple,” said the man, drawing a money clip packed with hundreds from his pocket. “You had a fire. Some of the animals would have melted together. You know—’double creatures’. I want one with a dog and a mouse together.”
Gavin was silent a moment, and then said, “I, um, don’t—”
“But it has to be in good condition,” insisted the man. “I don’t want it if the mouse doesn’t work.”
“The condition is irrelevant,” said Gavin. “Animals don’t melt. And they certainly don’t melt together to make… double animals?”
“Whatever. The point is I don’t have what you’re looking for. I’m sorry.”
The man nodded. He looked over his shoulder again. He put his bulging money clip on the counter and slid it toward Gavin. He then took off his hefty Rolex and set it next to the money clip. Gavin looked down at the counter and scratched the back of his neck. He looked around. Quietly, he disappeared into a room at the rear of the store, and then emerged two minutes later carrying a wicker basket with a lid. He set the basket on the counter. The man lifted the lid; his eyes widened. He closed the lid and looked around. He cleared his throat.
“The mouse works?” he said.
“All right,” said the man. He nodded, took the basket and left the store.
“Excuse me,” said a lady, dumping a bag of birdseed onto the counter. “Is this good for parakeets?”
“Yes,” said Gavin, putting on his new gold watch. “Parakeets love it.”
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