Thursday Night at the Taxidermist's
That Thursday evening I was working late, removing the skull of a dead owl. It
was December outside, but at my workbench the heat from the lamp was making my
fingers sweat. I was at the hardest part of the whole operation, the bit where
you have to ease the skull very gently down the neck without damaging the skin,
and as I began to work it loose, I found my eyes were blinking with the
concentration. But I could sense it was working, that I was doing it well, and
when I heard the telephone grumbling at the back of the shop I decided to let it
ring. It was too late for a summons to the pub and even though I'd taken down
the sign and removed myself from the Yellow Pages, the five-pint pranksters
("I've got this chicken that needs stuffing . . .") would still
occasionally get through. This was their time to call but tonight I wasn't in
the mood. Until I remembered Katya and changed my mind.
Katya was the latest student to rent the flat at the top of the house. It was always students because I kept the rent low to make up for any dead animals they might meet in the hallway. They were prepared to overlook a bit of that because the location was central and because my students in the Natural Sciences department were prepared to vouch for my character. Students will overlook a great deal if you have a reputation as a rebel, and in a painfully earnest, save-the-world department, I qualified by riding a motorbike and by refusing to toe the university line on current conservation theory. It was that easy.
The top-floor flat was self-contained. Katya and I had a front door and a staircase in common and very little else--in the couple of months since she'd moved in, we'd exchanged some polite smiles and rather fewer words. Every ten days or so her mother would ring from Sweden and I'd dutifully take down a message on a yellow pad and leave it at the bottom of the stairs, along with the suggestion that Katya might give her mother the number of the upstairs phone. The next day the notes would be gone but her mother would continue to ring downstairs. She was a polite woman, struggling slightly with her English, struggling not to let any anxiety show. I felt sorry for her. Which is why, even though the owl was just beginning to fall into line, I peeled off my gloves and answered the phone.
It wasn't Katya's mother.
It was a voice I hadn't heard for fourteen years. A scarcely remembered, totally familiar, soft, low voice.
"Fitz," it asked, "is that you?"
"Gabriella." A rhetorical statement, if such a thing is possible.
"Yes, it's me. It's been a long time, Fitz."
It wasn't clear whether that was a reproach or an apology.
"Yes, a long time." The words came out sounding defensive. "Though I got your letters."
"You didn't reply."
"You know I'm not a great one for writing."
She couldn't deny that. I was famous for it.
"Look, Fitz, I'm over in London for a few days and there's someone I want you to meet. He's a collector and he's got quite a good story to tell. I think you'll be interested. What are you doing tomorrow?"
I looked at the remains of the owl on the workbench. It would just have to take its chances in the freezer.
"I think tomorrow is reasonably free," I concluded.
"Good. Can we say seven in the bar at the Mecklenburg? It's off Oxford Street, just by Selfridges."
How like Gabby to realize that the Mecklenburg Hotel was not among my usual drinking venues.
"All right. Seven tomorrow . . ."
"It will be good to see you. I've told Karl that if anyone can help him you can."
Excerpted from The Conjurer's Bird by Martin Davies Copyright © 2005 by Martin Davies. Excerpted by permission of Shaye Areheart Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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