He walks in shoving the wheelie-bin. The door-chime pings. Dead eyes watch him. Amber bead eyes set into stilled faces. A fox in a glass case. A cluster of parrots on a perch. A ferret poised on the curl of tree-bark. He feels itchy. There must be bugs here, ticks tunneling away through all that dead fur. A silt of dry mustiness that hangs in the air, catching at the back of his throat.
‘What you got in there?’ says the taxidermist, crooking forward over the counter.
‘Bitch’ he says. Shoves it to a halt against the counter. ‘But just ‘cos she was a bitch doesn’t mean I don’t miss having her around.’
The elderly taxidermist laughs nervously. ‘So what service do you require, sir?’
He flips the lid. Her hair spills out. ‘She was messing around, you know what I mean? But this way I get to keep her. She can sit there in front of the TV, just like always, I can talk to her, in the absolute certainty she’ll never cheat on me ever again.’
‘Yeah, yes, of course, whatever you say.’ He reaches for the alert fixed beneath the desktop.
‘We do this based on trust.’ The client’s holding the shotgun that was cradled inside the wheelie-bin alongside the blasted corpse. ‘I trust you, you trust me.’
The old man licks his thin purple lips, squints through his optician’s arrangement of thick lenses. An amber sweat-bead crawls like a glistening bug down his stooped spine.
‘There’s a problem?’
‘No problem at all. Follow me.’ He’s an old man, his joints are stiff, there’s a bone-cracking sound when he move. He leads the way, behind the storefront there’s what resembles a mash-up of surgery and craft workshop. Racks of operating instruments. Shelves with plastic box-containers of feathers, kapok, differently hued eyeballs, fangs, molars, wire coils, staples and pins. Vitrines and bell-jars with indistinct fluid contents. A refrigerated cabinet.
‘You understand, I usually do nothing bigger than dearly-beloved dogs, and cute pet cats, the deceased animal companions of bereaved owners. Nothing quite like this.’
‘But you can do it, right? What’s been your biggest commission so far?’
‘I suppose, yes. There was a grizzly bear I did for the museum exhibition, that received much commendation. Tell you what, leave the… er, subject with me, come back in three days, I’ll fix an appointment…’
‘No. It doesn’t work that way. I’m here to watch you work. We don’t want you tempted to alert anyone or inform the authorities about the unusual nature of this project, do we?’
He hitches his glasses up the bridge of his nose. Glances at the shotgun cradled casually in the curve of his arm. ‘No, I suppose not. Help me get the subject on the slab. I’ll do what I can.’
Prepping her is a long detailed procedure. The table has runnels and drains, for fluids. She’s sprawled on her back, already naked, the fatal wound exploding her stomach. She’s older than she seems, her blonde hair doesn’t match her pubes. He frames her carefully, takes photos, measurements. Skull radius, ocular orbits. Anoints her body with preserving fluids, cleaning the wound. Mixes plaster for the manikin. Takes a death-mask cast of her face and hands. Glances over his shoulder nervously, coughing.
He makes tea in an electric kettle, using two teabags. Presses Preset One on the radio, a phone-in about benefit cheats fades in. ‘How do you want her posing?’ says the taxidermist.
‘Seated. It was good, in general, what we had. She just had a weakness, a wandering eye. This way I get to keep her, you understand?’
‘Of course. Eyes are difficult. Human eyes that is. I have other species…’ He spills a selection across the table. They run them between their fingers… this one? or this one? Not quite right. Not a good match. He holds them against her dead white face questioningly. Yes, they’ll have to do.
‘Now… you sure you want to watch? We call this the ‘caping’?’ Pulling on latex gloves, flipping through the lenses in his optician’s array, into the correct focus. The incisions begin along her spine. Peeling the skin back. His breathing is quiet, his mind concentrated, half on the radio voice, half on the scalpel…
The taxidermist works methodically, long into the night. The client watches every movement, the shotgun never wavering. She reassembles before his eyes. Taking shape almost supernaturally. The familiar curves accentuated, the shape filling out. Only the eyes are different.
Finally the taxidermist straightens up, unsheathing the messy latex gloves. There’s a moment of confused silence, before the client pulls the trigger and his shotgun roars…
Several hours later he walks out shoving the wheelie-bin. The door-chime pings. The elderly taxidermist is crooked forward over the counter. He’s totally immobile, awaiting the next customer. His eyes are mismatch amber beads.
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