There were two types of people – those who belonged in pet shops, and those who didn’t. Gabby looked at the pair of beautiful women walking towards her past the dog leads and bird feeders and instinctively knew these girls were not on the list.
In other circumstances she’d be quite interested in the spikey-haired brunette in the red leather dress, white boots and fishnets. Especially considering how she looked bending down beside the tank of Golden Orfe. But customers weren’t supposed to dabble their fingers in the water. She had a sign.
That wasn’t really the problem. The problem was the other woman because she freaked Gabby out. Her high-collared, sleeveless blue silk dress should not have gone with her sub-arctic complexion and platinum locks, yet it did. Her clothes, like her poise, had a below-zero, glacial self-possession. Like her complexion, her clothes were perfect. She was the one who did not belong in the shop, she should be in a palace, a temple. She was a goddess.
Gabby didn’t realise her mouth was hanging open until the woman put a finger under her jaw and lifted. Gabby’s teeth clicked together.
‘Hello. My name is Electra. She’s Imelda. We like your fishy little shop.’
Straightening up from the tank the brunette bared her teeth. ‘Love it.’
‘We’re looking for a man,’ Electra said, her eyes drawn towards two angelfish hovering face to face in the centre of their tank.
Freaked or not, Gabby still had a tongue in her head. ‘Me too.’
Electra stood very still. ‘Is that so?’
Gabby knew she’d a mistake but didn’t know what it was. ‘Or a woman.’
‘We’re looking for a woman as too.’
Imelda flipped the sign on the door to ‘Closed’ and slipped the bolt.
‘Hang on, you can’t do that.’ Gabby moved out from behind the counter.
Electra stepped into her way, her sudden smile filled with teeth as iridescent as mother-of-pearl. ‘She just did. Tell me about the man.’
‘The one you’re looking for.’
‘There isn’t any man. I haven’t found him yet.’
Electra shook her head. ‘Don’t lie. We know he was here. And the woman. Tell us her name.’
The hell with personal space, Gabby wanted these two gone. ‘You’re right, we’re closed. Leave the shop please, right now.’
Imelda leaned back on the door. ‘We don’t do “please”.’
Gabby was scared now. They could have the shop as long as she could leave. She tried to push Electra out of the way but somehow her hands slid away and she stumbled into the hutches. Hamsters, guinea-pigs and rabbits scrambled in a whirl of thumping feet, scrabbling claws and leaping fur.
Somebody gripped her elbow: Imelda, the brunette. That close Gabby could smell the leather of her dress and something else, something sweet, yet old and rotten.
‘Mind your pretty, fluffy hair,’ Imelda said. ‘It might get torn out.’ The grip tightened. ‘Come over here, I’ve got something to show you.’
It was the tank of Golden Orfe, and it was empty.
‘What have you done? Where are they?’
Imelda let Gabby go, her grin even wider than Electra’s. Her tongue flicked over her teeth, worrying at something. Her fingers pinched it free, held it out to show Gabby.
A tail fin.
Outrage broke through Gabby’s fear. ‘You sick fuck.’
‘There’s no need for that.’ Electra was right behind her, body pressed against hers, hands on Gabby’s hips, mouth breathing in her ear. ‘We’ll pay.’
Gabby turned fast, broke free of Electra’s grip ‘Damned right you will. And I want her out of my shop right now.’ She kept the tremor in her body from her voice, she was proud of that.
Electra and Imelda exchanged a look, then Imelda unbolted the door and stood outside. Electra peeled notes off a roll, ‘Tell me, how much do I owe you?’
Good grief, Gabby thought, it’s not the money. Those poor fish, some people were just too weird to be real. What’s wrong with them? What makes someone come into a pet shop and eat the animals? Then Gabby saw the thickness of the roll of notes Electra was holding and the business-woman inside her elbowed her morals aside.
‘Two fifty.’ The poor little things were only a couple of quid each, but this was compensation.
Electra kept putting notes down on the counter. ‘Let’s make it three. I really am sorry about my friend. She’s going through a life-altering experience.’
Gabby considered the heap of notes and sighed. ‘You’re supposed to forgive other people’s sins.’
‘Are you?’ Electra held out her hand and smiled her wide and dazzling smile. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Gabby,’ Gabby said. She took Electra’s hand and was surprised at the strength of her grip.
‘Well, Gabby, I don’t think you’ve told me everything you know about that woman.’ And Electra began to squeeze.
Eventually the roaring red darkness lifted from Gabby’s mind. Whimpering with pain she cradled her hand and dragged herself along the floor until she reached the counter. Cold sweat bathed her scalp, her corona of lilac hair hung in rat’s tails. Her hand hurt so much, a ball of pure pain. She didn’t want to look but she had to see. She forced herself.
Dislocated knuckles jutted at grotesque angles, the back of her hand was a swollen purple bruise, the skin stretched tight it glistened.
An accident, she told herself, I can tell the hospital it was an accident. One of the hutches slipped, I tried to grab it and the whole stack fell. Just an accident.
It turned out that Electra already knew quite a lot about the man. She wasn’t really interested in him, she wanted to hear about the woman with the long golden-blonde hair. The more Gabby described her the more excited Electra became. Her questioning intensified. Gabby tried hard to remember but it took a long time before Electra was convinced she hadn’t seen which direction the woman turned when she ran off.
‘Next time it might be me, or it might be Imelda.’ Electra kissed Gabby’s tears. ‘She’s a proper little maiden of pain, that one. Shall I ask her to come in and you can ask her yourself? You can say, “Imelda, next time I want you to be the one to hurt me.” She’d like that.’
By then Gabby was beyond words. Curled up against the wall, all she could do was wail and shake her head.
Then Imelda did come back into the shop. She showed Gabby just what she would do, as the sad little red-streaked heaps of fur she left in the rabbit hutches made very clear.
To be continued…