CLUTCHING AT PAWS

By Madeline McEwen




Hank Blight, an ardent animal lover, projected a servile image matched with a soft-spoken delivery.

This was the man whom Serenity Sweetwater ignored when she swanned into the hardware store a few minutes before closing time. He recognized her immediately, still dressed in fuchsia pink, despite their twenty-two year separation.

"What's a lady got to do around here to get some service?" She leaned against the chest-high customer desk, pressing her breasts against the counter top.

Abandoning his broom, Hank approached her. How could she afford that Mercedes abandoned outside?

"May I help, Madam?" Who wore a fur coat in California on a day like this?

 "I know you, don't I?"

He didn't answer. How could she have forgotten? He shouldn't serve her but couldn't resist. He noticed her sunburnt skin and the creep of crow's feet.

"Look," she said, "I'm in a hurry. I need some chicken wire to mend a hole in the fence. I've blocked it with an old wooden pallet for now, but it won't last forever."

Why hadn't she recognized him or at least his voice? That's how it started, with harmless phone sex.

"Follow me." He led her to the back of the store past a thousand different tools he could use to destroy her. She tottered obediently behind him, her high heels clicking against the stone floor. Had she ever regretted what she'd done? She'd stolen his life and left him broken in heart and soul and psyche. Two decades locked in a cell.

Serenity tapped a ragged fingernail against expensive dentistry smeared with lipstick. When did a working girl retire? Forty? Fifty?

She'd cheated him. Payback time was well overdue. To have her walk into his life like this was a gift. No, a message. He'd never believed in divine intervention, until now.

"I'll take a yard of that one." She rummaged in her capacious purse.

The flick-knife chaffed his ankle as he bent to grab the bolt croppers.

"How much?" She glanced at him. "What are you leering at?" She clutched the thick fur collar to her throat. "Where's Matthew today?"

"The boss is out back." Matthew had never enquired about Hank's offenses. His parole officer said Matthew preferred not to know.

"I do know you." Her black lashes fluttered. "Where do I know you from?"

Turning, Hank took the chicken wire to the register. He couldn't make her pay, but he could leave her doubts to fester.

 

Matthew, Hank's boss came through from the office.

"Did I miss her?" His rheumy eyes looked toward the street. "Was that Mrs. Mondale?"

"Did you say Mondale?" No more Serenity Sweetwater. No wonder he hadn't been able to find her. Grabbing the broom, Hank began to sweep where he had left off, before she forced him to remember when his life came to a standstill. Would Matthew realize he'd served her? Hank hadn't rung up the sale stuffing the cash in his pocket.

"Yes, Savanna Mondale, poor lady."

Lady? Changing her name didn't stop her being a bitch, pretending nothing had happened.

"Her husband died, poor fellow," Matthew said, "same age as me. Owns Mondale's Exotics Refuge. A millionaire with the heart of a lion and the loyalty of bloodhound. He sure did always love his waifs and strays. Married Savanna twenty years ago. Don't know how she'll cope alone. Still, she's got those exotic kitties for company." He grinned, "especially Charlie, she's the spotty one. Still, I can't see Savanna ending up a lonely old cat lady. She's got spunk that one, and no mistake."

"How did they meet?" Did Mondale know he'd married a hooker?

"Funny story there. Met at the court house. Years ago now, before your time I guess. Savanna was the star witness in the slasher case, and old Mondale was on the jury." Matthew sighed and stretched. "I expect you want to get home. It's gone five."

Hank checked his phone and found the Mondale place. He had no intention of returning to his rat-infested room. Jumping in his truck, Hank headed out of town. Serenity had said she was in a hurry, so hopefully she'd be there already, thinking herself home safe.

So Serenity had hit the jackpot. Why shouldn't Hank have some of that good fortune after he'd given her a piece of his mind? And maybe a little something else thrown in for free.

He spotted a sign to the refuge and a warning to trespassers. A huge gate stood open draped with heavy chains and a dangling padlock. Cutting the engine, he cruised down the dusty track bordered by post and rail fences set back a few yards from wire enclosures. He saw movement, a flash of fuchsia between the trunks of a cluster of trees, and took his knife from his boot.

He crept from the truck and sidled closer.

She turned to face him, "so you found me."

"Thought you didn't recognize me."

Serenity, or rather Savanna, leaned against the torn wire fence and kicked aside some splintered planks of wood. "Witness protection has its limitations."

"I've hunted you for years."

"And I've been caring for these brutalized creatures, like your slasher victims. Put that knife away. I'm not afraid. You should get back to your truck."

"There's no escape, Serenity."

"Okay. But don't blame me if they shred you into ground meat."

"What?"

 "The cats are on the loose. Big cats."

"You're kidding." He scanned the scrubland. "You're in danger too if you're telling the truth. They'll get you too."

"No, they know my scent. They know I bring them food. They know I bring them the good stuff." She hooked her little finger through a loop on the wire fence. "And Charlie, she's the cheetah, hasn't been fed ... yet."



Madeline McEwen is a member of the California Writers Club and Sisters in Crime, Norcal.


Copyright 2015 Madeline McEwen. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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