#59 Pet shop: part 3
Tracking down a seller of dangerous animals...
Previously: A man was discovered dead in his house, killed by an exotic pet known as a ‘dopur’. Native to Palinor, it shouldn’t have been living in a north London terrace. Detectives Clarke and Styles are on the case, tracking down the seller of the dubious pet…
On duty: DC Yannick Clarke & DC Lola Styles
It was a typical east London high street, lined with takeaway food restaurants for late-night revellers, betting shops, newsagents and hairdressers. As tended to be the case in that part of the city it was also notably more diverse: not only humans from all over the planet but also people from across the triverse, with a higher proportion of koth and aen’fa walking the pavements and browsing the shop windows.
There was a time when Clarke had found it discomforting, even regarded the place as seeming somewhat dirty. Slightly out of control. Those thoughts felt like a long time ago; a different age, a different him. Had he changed, or had the world changed around him? It hadn’t been a conscious thing. He’d always expected to get more set in his ways as he got older, not less. His own dad had moved further and further to the left, increasingly entrenched in socialist conspiracies. His uncle had gone in the other direction, but to a similar end. And there was Yannick Clarke, in his mid-fifties, working into his retirement, reconsidering his entire point of view.
He still caught himself thinking like the old Clarke. Looking at a pointy-eared face in a barber and huffing about the good old days of having your hair cut by someone who understood human hair. Or looking at a koth serving someone a cup of coffee, and unable to see past the huge fists, horns and folded-back wings. Flashing images of devils and demons, of dragons from Arthurian stories. He couldn’t stop his brain. It was wired in a particular way and that was that - but he could intercept those thoughts, question them, interrogate them like he might a suspect, and choose to reject them.
“I’ve always love this place,” said Styles, as if reading his mind. Her bouncy air of excitement had returned after being absent for the last few months. “Don’t you think?”
Clarke smiled. He wasn’t sure what to say without feeling like he was lying. “It’s interesting.”
She shot him a sideways glance. “Interesting? Come on, is that it? Are you being Old Man Clarke again?”
He shrugged and raised his hands in surrender. “Styles, cut me a break.” He waved at the opposite side of the street, where a band was playing in an abandoned store front. “I like it, OK? It’s taken me a while to realise that, is all.”
She glowered. “Don’t call me kid.”
“Don’t call me old.”
“But you are old.”
He laughed. “Fair point.” He pulled out his notebook and flipped it over to the latest page. “Here we go,” he said, pointing up ahead. “That’s the place.”
“Looks like a pet shop.”
It did. Large glass windows out front, stacked floor to ceiling with cages and glass containers. He nodded. “Looks like a pet shop.”
They stood on the pavement, looking in through the window. The cages were a mix of all sorts, though primarily rodents. A few snakes. One fish tank. A half dozen frogs sat sleepily on small rocks.
“I’ve never really understood pets,” Clarke said. “No, really. A dog, fine. A proper dog, that you can train. Police dogs - amazing. Guide dogs - amazing.” He tapped on the glass, drawing the attention of a rat. “But these little bastards? What’s the point?”
She elbowed him in the ribs. “Comfort? Warmth? Emotional connection? Love? Affection?”
“You can have all that if you want, Styles, but at the end of the day you’re still clearing up the shit of some idiot creature that doesn’t give a damn about you, and would eat you given half the chance.”
“Anyway,” Styles said, slowly and deliberately, “how about we get on with this? Still good with the plan?”
“No problem. Might as well play our parts.”
He was going to miss her. She’d aced the interview, predictably. The job offer had come through, so it was only paperwork and bureaucracy standing between her and moving to Palinor. It’d take to the new year to get it all sorted, but suddenly that didn’t seem very far away.
A bell above the door jangled as she opened it. Lola glanced up, then scanned the shop as she entered. It looked like a typical pet shop: all very Earth-bound and ordinary, complete with that authentic slightly-damp-sawdust odour.
Turning on the most excitable part of her brain, she skipped over to a cage containing a fluffy, white rabbit. “Look at this!” She practically squealed.
Clarke trudged over, presumably not finding it difficult to play the part of grumpy elder. “A rabbit, really?” He crossed his arms and looked disdainfully at her. “The most boring of all animals?”
“They are not boring!”
“Too big. It’ll just make a mess around the flat, and you don’t have a garden for it.”
“OK, OK,” she said, moving along the wall. “What about a guinea pig, then? They’re like halfway between a rabbit and a hamster.”
The shop owner took the bait, wandering over with artificial casualness. “Hi there,” he said jovially, “can I help at all? You’re looking for a new pet?”
Clarke stared at the man as if he was an idiot. “How did you guess?”
“Is this your daughter? You’ve come to the right place, sir. We have everything you could possibly need - once she’s made her choice, we have all the supplies and equipment required for any of our animals. We’re all about looking after the animals here. After all, a pet is family, right?”
The guy had fallen for it: Lola hadn’t been convinced that they could pull off the father-daughter thing. Hopefully he wouldn’t look too closely and realise she was rather older than she tended to appear. Her youthfulness had been irritating as a teenager, constantly being ID checked in bars, but had proven to have its advantages as she entered her twenties. The shop owner was human, middle-aged, moustached and had thinning, slicked-back hair that looked as if it had been glued to his scalp. Despite his friendliness there was a clear nervous energy to the man.
She wondered how long to wait. “You’re right, I think I’d get bored of a rabbit,” she said. “Sara had one, do you remember? It was cute, but so annoying after a while. Maybe something more exotic.”
The owner interjected. “We do have a selection of snakes and spiders, from all over the planet. Sub-Saharan, South American, Australian. Mostly harmless - some de-fanged. But, to be honest, a lot of those creatures have unearned reputations.” He leaned in close, as if sharing a great secret. “They’re more scared of us than we are of them, you see.”
Lola pouted. “Still a bit clichéd, don’t you think? Girl with a snake, trying to be rebellious? Ugh.”
Clarke tapped the owner on the elbow. “Listen, what we’re really looking for is something with a bit of personality. She does a lot of entertaining. Gets that from her mother. What about something nobody’s seen before?”
The owner looked at Clarke, then back to Lola. She smiled sweetly, imagined her eyes sparkling. “Well, now,” he said. “That depends really on how much you’re prepared to pay. A rabbit is one thing—”
“Cost isn’t a factor,” Clarke said, waving a hand, “not when she’s involved. Come on, then, show us the weirdest thing you’ve got.”
For a moment she thought the owner was going to back off, and refuse, sensing a trap. But then his excitement and entrepreneurial instincts took over and he sighed loudly, before clapping his hands. “Very well.” He crossed to the entrance and flipped over the sign to closed, then clicked the lock. “Let me show you our unique specimens.”
There it was. Lola grinned, not needing to hide her own curiosity. After a squad had gone into the north London house and disposed of the dopur, violently, a search of the premises had been carried out. It was an entirely normal residence, other than the dead body and the formerly deadly Palinese animal. In a kitchen cupboard they’d found stacks of dead mice, packaged up and presumably ready to be fed to the dopur. There had also been a receipt: clearly the dead owner had been meticulous about his filing, and the shop owner had been too stupid to cover his tracks properly. Owning exotic megafauna was as illegal as selling it, so he’d probably assumed he’d be safe through mutual self-interest.
He led them behind the counter and through a black door into the rear of the premises: a long storage room at least twice as big as the shop itself. There was none of the cosy ambience of the front, though - it was a dark, industrial space lit by stark overhead strips. It shared one similarity with the shop, in that it was filled from front to back and floor to ceiling with cages and glass cabinets, though these were not being used to hold gerbils and stick insects.
“Welcome to the triverse,” the owner said, with a dramatic flourish.
It was a menagerie of Palinor’s wildest beasts, of all shapes and sizes. Slithering, hopping, three-legged, six-legged, multi-limbed, quad-eyed, furred, slick, carapaced, gaseous, gelatinous, winged, horned, spiny, ape-like, dog-like, cat-like, snake-like, humanoid. It was as mesmerising as it was horrific, both in its potential for disaster and the conditions in which the creatures were being housed.
She spied a particular creature in a glass cage: about the size of a small kitten, cover in bright green fur and otherwise featureless. There was no face, no obvious front or back - just little, stick-thin black legs as it scurried about in the small space. “What’s this one?”
“Ah yes,” he said, “one of my favourites.” He unlatched the top of the cabinet and lifted it up, then reached in and picked up the furry creature. “This is called a dopur. Very rare. Difficult to find, as they are solitary creatures. Very shy, but tamed like this one it’s like having your own living, cuddly cushion.”
The place was a disaster waiting to happen. Lola reached into her back pocket and pulled out her ID. “I’m Detective Constable Lola Styles, Specialist Dimensional Command. You’re under arrest for manslaughter, wildlife smuggling and sale of prohibited fauna. Do you wish to say anything? You are not obliged to say anything unless you wish to do so but whatever you say will be taken down in writing and may be given in evidence.”
The owner’s eyes bulged, then he threw the infant dopur at her and ran in the opposite direction. The green creature hit her in the chest, then fell to the floor where it propped itself up on two legs, acting as if startled. It was almost cute.
“Keep an eye on that,” she said to Clarke, then raced in pursuit. The owner had a head start but ran in a slow and awkward manner, as if he wasn’t used to physical exertion. He reached a fire door at the rear of the storage room but seemed unable to open it. Lola grabbed his arm, pinned it behind his back and pushed him to the ground.
“I didn’t do anything wrong!” the man wailed.
“Those dopur creatures? They grow up really fast.”
The White Horse was warm, a fire burning gently in the corner. It was the sort of pub that was always best as the winter approached, Clarke thought. The bartender, delivered two pints and he slid a note across the bar. “Thanks, Paul.”
Carrying them through the crowded pub, Clarke smiled again at Styles’ willingness to drink a pint. He associated it with the blokes he’d worked with through his career - there was a time when the women wouldn’t even have gone to the pub, and even then would have opted for something lighter or more refined. Styles was something else. New generation, doing things their own way. He liked it, that slightly uncomfortable sensation of being challenged.
“Here you go,” he said, taking the seat opposite her at a small, round table. They were next to a fogged-up window, condensation dripping down its edges. “You sure you’re feeling fine?”
She grinned. “All good. Remember what the lady from the museum said? Dopur don’t develop their toxins until they reach adulthood. As long as you’ve got a small one, it really is just a cute ball of fluff.”
“Yeah, sure,” Clarke said, grimacing. “It starts like that. Then there’s running, and screaming.”
“There is that.” She took a swig, wiped her mouth with the back of her hand.
“Having any second thoughts?”
“Nope.” She held the glass with both hands and looked at him. “There’s things I’ll miss working at the SDC. Miss about London. But it’s the right move for me.”
He nodded. “I think it is. It’ll be useful for us to have a liaison on the other side of the portal. First time we’ve had that.”
Styles frowned and lifted her chin. “What’s that?”
Clarke twisted in his seat. There was a television behind the bar, showing an unscheduled news programme. “Paul! Turn it up, would you?”
The bartender obliged. “The fallout from the extraordinary rendition scandal continues to undermine the government. Just announced by the Prime Minister in the last hour is a new general election, brought forward to next year. Regarded as a national vote of confidence in the embattled government, pundits are already saying to expect upheaval at the polls—”
Styles laughed nervously. “Did Holland just bring down the government?”
“Sounds that way, doesn’t it?”
“This is going to get a lot of eyes on the SDC and what we’re doing. We’re not going to be popular in Westminster.”
“Commissioner’s not going to like it, that’s for sure.” Clarke raised his beer. “Looks like you picked the right time to be leaving the universe, Styles.”
She picked up her glass and clinked it against his. “I’ll drink to that.”
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Thank you for reading. That marks the conclusion of the ‘Pet shop’ storyline. That was fun.
Paid subscribers can now dive behind-the-scenes into the author notes. Everyone else, I’ll see you on Monday (when I’ve got a fantastic interview with another writer/artist coming up).
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