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It is not even seven thirty yet and mud is already sticking to her boots like tar. The cold water – that she had tried so carefully to keep as far as possible from her skin – is now creeping steadily through the tear in her plastic rain trousers. They rustle as she ploughs through the rainstorm. The sky overhead is a dark grey blanket over the world. It doesn’t look like the rain will give up at any point during the day, and will just keep going, leaving us to wonder just how much water a floating layer of air can contain before it gives out and lets it all drop to the ground.
Or on me, Helena grumbles to herself as she lets her bike swing into the lane towards the visitor centre. For a moment she feels the bike slip treacherously on the fallen leaves but luckily the tires get a grip on the cobbles quickly so she doesn’t end face down in the mud, so close to the finish line. More slowly and carefully now, Helena cruises to the bike racks.
“Gods woman, you look like you swam here!” Marina throws over the cloth that she was using to dry the dishes. “Let me get you a proper towel.” She wanders off and Helena begins peeling off her plastic layers, mac and trousers and boots, on the mat in the entrance. She glances at the clock over the counter. About thirty minutes before the first customers arrive. Or ‘guests’ as they want her to call them. In Helena’s mind, anyone who wants to buy something from a shop is called a customer but what does she know about retail?
Another towel hits her in the face. “Sorry!” Marina calls from behind the counter.
“That’s okay, thanks.” Helena mops her face and the edge of hair that peeped out from under her raincoat and will provide her with a fringe of extremely fuzzy hair throughout the day. “Got tea?”
“Of course! It’s Autumn so we have cinnamon tea!” Marina is already pouring her a cup, the treasure that she is. Helena grabs it and tries to take a sip. Still too hot. She wanders over to the windows and opens the blinds over the huge sheets of glass. Piece by piece the beautiful scenery around the coffeeshop reveals itself.
Woodland. A branch has snapped off and blown against the pole in the middle of the meadow out front. Its leaves are blowing about hard, it won’t last long. The reeds along the pond sway under the gale and a heron is standing stock still at the edge of the water. Fishers gotta fish. In the distance the windmills are stationary. This storm is too much, even for them. It will be a quiet day.
The visitor centre where Helena works is state of the art, with interactive installations that were designed by both educational professionals and artists. Helena loves looking at them, even after all this time. She mans the giftshop that is filled with books about the local wildlife and plants and mushrooms, hiking guides for the area, toys and all kinds of other fun stuff about nature and animals and plants. It is popular with the people who come to visit the nature park. Helena suspects that a lot of the gifts people purchase are really gifts for themselves and that actually makes her smile. People should be choosing things for themselves instead of being gifted things that they wouldn’t choose.
She is in the middle of taking stock in the back when she hears the shop bell ring. That would be the second customer, no guest, of the day after the young man who bought the mushroom guide in the morning. Good weather for mushrooms. Helena walks into the shop and then curses under her breath.
“Good morning Rick!” she greets the shop visitor cheerfully.
He returns the attention with a glittering smile.
“Good morning! How are you today?” He beams at her, his eyes fully focused on her like she is a specimen of a rare species that he insists on keeping in optima forma for the rest of the research team.
Honestly, Helena sighs inwardly, why does this man always remind her of the worst kind of vivisection researcher? He just perpetually looks like he is in charge of keeping the lab rats healthy and happy so others can come and cut them up.
Not fair, Helena scolds herself, maybe he is really the nicest man alive. Didn’t he tell me he visited his mother, like, just, um, a few weeks ago? Yeah, like a man should get a medal for visiting his own mother, a little voice in the back of her mind supplies. “Oh shut up.”
“Sorry?” His eyebrows shoot up.
“Nothing.” She smiles broadly. “Is there anything I can do for you, Rick? Anything amiss today?”
He shakes his head vigorously but without taking his eyes off hers. “Of course not…” – he hesitates but gives up on trying to remember her name – “… dear, I was only making the rounds, you could say.” A short laugh. The weasel.
She nods, continues to tidy the counter and move things around for no reason at all. What is up, Ricky boy?
“It’s just that. I was wondering…” he begins.
“Can you give me a wee update on the sales figures for the day, perhaps? No need to be overly specific, really, I mean I get them at the end of the week anyway of course.”
Like she doesn’t know he is watching the shop’s performance like one of the hawks whose statuettes she sells to exasperated parents for their children on Sunday. The shop’s performance has been what Rick calls ‘under par’ for a while now and he is blaming whatever he can lay his blame on except his own responsibilities. She is running a good shop, she knows that, but it would sure help if her displays were as fancy as the installations in the educational area, or as tasty as Marina’s cakes and brownies, or if someone would just wash the damn overhead window and let some light in!
“A grand total of twelve ninety-five so far today, Rick. That is including sales tax of course. I only sold one book, you see. It is not exactly good weather for wandering the trails today.” Rain is drumming hard on the glass dome over their heads.
“Right. Right.” Rick nods. “Well then, I will just… Um… Yeah, thanks.”
He won’t invest, of course. He is only checking out what part of the visitor centre he can squeeze off in order to maximise profits. Going corporate with this thing was the foundation’s worst mistake ever.
By the time Helena is headed outside again, the weather has thankfully cleared a little. She needs to hurry up to reach the barn. Fred has a way of taking off without her. If that happens, she will need to try to find him somewhere in the fields and woods and that is just near impossible because Fred doesn’t believe in cell phones.
But she is early and finds him piling his stuff into the little green van. He is tidy and orderly and all his things are always clean. Even his clothes are immaculate, but then they always are at the start of his shift in the forest. He looks up at her as she comes into the barn.
“You are on time today.”
Thanks luv no need to point that out.
“If you’re coming along today, we will need an extra shovel. Brought your own binoculars, I hope?”
She nods. She always brings her binoculars, wherever she goes. How else will she spot the various birds and animals in this park, in her garden on the edge of the village, or even on the way between her house and here?
“Where are we going today?” Helena asks when they have both climbed into the van and Fred turns it out onto the main trail.
“Out back in the field near the old watermill,” Fred grunts. “Something’s up there, there was some commotion yesterday but I couldn’t go and check it out because of the thunderstorm.” He shrugs. “Maybe something got stuck in the drains or something. But it felt different. I want to see what is going on.”
Helena doesn’t ask anything else. She knows that Fred can sometimes sense things and see disturbances in the way animals act and react that she has not been able to spot yet. She trusts that if he says something is up there, then something is probably up there.
By the time they get out of the van, the weather has cleared completely and a few weak rays of sunlight are making an effort. Helena pulls her rubber boots on again and grabs her shovel from the back. Fred is looking over the field with his binoculars. The old mill is standing a little forlornly in the wet field. Its dark wood stands out against the wet green of the field, like always.
Yet something is amiss. Helena can feel it immediately, even without Fred’s mysterious senses. Her eyes search the field and the woods on the edges.
“It is so quiet,” she says, softly.
Fred nods. “Yes.” He lowers his binoculars. “There should be crows and -“ he glances up “- perhaps even seagulls in this weather. But nothing.”
“That is weird.”
“Hm, maybe. Or maybe it is just that someone new moved into the neighbourhood that everybody’s still getting used to.” He sees her looking at her, waiting for further explanation.
“Like what?” she presses.
“Read the papers?” He raises his eyebrows.
She gasps. “A wolf?”
“Wouldn’t they track it or something? Wouldn’t they know it would be here?”
He laughs quietly. “And who would this ‘they’ be that you’re talking about? You mean the foresters? Or the rangers?” He taps the insignia on his chest, then points to the little gully down from the mill. “We are the first to report, Lena. So let’s see if we can feed the researchers with some new material, shall we?” He picks up his shovel with his left hand and places his right lightly on the firearm on his ranger belt.
“Wanna come along or stay here?”
Helena hesitates. Her throat has gone dry. She is just a volunteer intern, she doesn’t have a gun! What good exactly will a shovel be against a wild wolf?
tl;dr Helena works in the giftshop of a nature park and joins the ranger to check out something unusual in the park. It could be a wolf moved into the gully by the mill. Does she join the ranger to check it out?
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