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Fred doesn’t even say anything. He just looks down at Helena and takes a deep breath. Nothing is said for several minutes. Helena slowly withdraws her hand from her pocket and closes the zipper while turning her side away from Fred’s gaze.
“I didn’t catch it yet,” she says, her voice as casual as possible.
“Tried to lure it with food and that seems to be working but she is shy.”
Still no reply.
“But I think that could be a way to get closer to her.”
She looks up in surprise.
“I have brought poisoned meat. We’ll find her body at the end of the day, I am sure.”
“Poison? In a natural park?”
He peers down at her, his eyes half closed. “We’ll just need to make sure we take the carcass out of here before the crows eat it.”
“Wow,” Helena says as she looks around for a place to climb out of the gully again. “You must really hate cats.”
“Not necessarily.” He reaches down to offer his hand. “I just don’t like them murdering my birds and rodents. It is just one cat,” he says as he pulls her up, “in exchange for a lot of saved critters that actually belong in this ecosystem.” He brushes off his hands against his trousers. “I don’t like it when things are out of place, where they don’t belong.”
“Can’t we just try to catch it and try to return it to the owner?”
“Speaking of belonging somewhere,” he continues, ignoring her question completely, “why are you out here at this hour? Aren’t you supposed to be in there by now?” He nods his head in the direction of the visitor centre.
“Oh crap, what time is it?”
“Quarter to eight. Doesn’t the shop open at half past seven or something?”
“Oh no! Rick is going to have my head on a stick at the entrance to the park! It’s a beautiful day, we are bound to have early visitors. Fuck!” Helena starts to run towards her bike that is waiting on the edge of the trail. Then she doubles back. “Don’t poison the cat, Fred. Try catching it first, will you? It belongs to someone, I’m sure they’ll be upset.”
“No. It needs to go.” Fred’s face is impassive. “And so do you.”
It isn’t until she is halfway to the giftshop, plowing her bike through the sandy shoulder, that Helena realises that she could take that as a threat.
Marina is busy at the cafetaria with the early morning customers, serving them cinnamon tea and lattes, as Helena rushes in and dives for the cupboard under the sink. Quiet meews greet her as she pulls the little curtains apart. Three tiny bodies crawl over each other in the round bread basket with the towel that Helena used just yesterday to dry her face. The kittens turn their half open eyes towards the light flowing in.
“I fed them right before I opened the café,” Marina tells her while bustling by to the coffee machine, “they should hold for a while.”
“Thank you Mariana, you are an absolute gem!”
“I know I know darling, now get out of my way. There’s a love.”
Helena scoops the basket from the cupboard and carries it with her to the giftshop where she deposits it in another cupboard, under the register this time. Five minutes later, the shop is open and the first customer of the day walks in with a question about crows.
“Do you think Rick noticed them?”
It is the end of the day and Helena is helping Marina close up the coffeeshop. It has been a busy day and both of them have run a decent revenue. Rick was spotted around midday, when they were both in the middle of helping several customers at once. He didn’t say anyting while wandering around the shop and Helena hopes that the noise of the educational installations and coffeeshop have drowned out any kitty pleas for milk. I was time to feed them but impossible to head to the restrooms to do so, like she had been doing for most of the morning, on and off with Marina.
“I don’t know. I hope not.” Marina casts her a glance. “I would hate to lose you as a colleague. Even if you bring trouble lately.” The kittens have moved out of the basket on the floor and are tentatively and clumsily exploring the floor and chair legs they encounter. Marina’s eyes soften. “They are really cute, aren’t they?”
“They are. And Fred is killing their mama as we speak.”
“What?” Marina is shocked. “Why?”
Helena sighs. “Cats don’t belong in the park, he says. But there is something else.” She puts the dishcloth down. “He got really pissed that I was up there, and not just about the cat. He got like that yesterday when we had just found the kittens. I commented how quiet it was and he cut me off completely. Did not want to hear a word about it, and told me to stay away.”
“Which explains the bit about this morning,” Marina supplied.
“Well yes, I guess. But he didn’t let me come along now either. And I was scheduled to join him to check on the cows at the east meadow and everything!”
“They’re not cows, they’re…”
“Field maintenance officers. Yeah.” Helena rolls her eyes at the stale joke. “Cows, for short. But it is really unusual for Fred to divert from the schedule, you know that.”
“I know that. And I know that also because I tried really hard this morning to delay him by offering another cup of coffee so you would have more time. But he took his to go as usual and walked to the van exactly the same time as any other day. Like clockwork, that man. So no, I did not notice anything strange. And wouldn’t you think that a man like Fred would have his reasons?”
Helena scowls. It is annoying when people are being reasonable.
“And also I found this.”
She carefully pulls the necklace out of her pocket and puts it on the counter. Marina whistles softly. “That is quite something.” She reaches her hand and hesitates. “Is it okay if I touch it?”
“Sure, go ahead. I have not had time to look at it properly yet. I found it in the gully this morning, although I had spotted it already yesterday.”
“What did Fred say?”
“He doesn’t know. I didn’t tell him.”
“What? Why not?” Marina’s eyebrows are raised in surprise.
Helena looks away. “I don’t know. I just felt I didn’t want him to know. I felt convinced that he would take it away. Maybe he would have gotten angry, the way he was acting.” She looks around impatiently. “There was something strange about him. About the whole situation! I mean… One” she counts on her fingers, “he is really stubborn about killing the cat, even though he is a bit soft about the kittens.”
“Well who wouldn’t be? Look at them!” Marina’s eyes soften as she looks down at the little balls of fur on the floor.
“True. But shut up. Because two, he won’t tell me about why he thinks everything had gone so quiet up there yesterday. Like he realised something when we were there but didn’t want to share. It’s weird.”
“Okay,” Marina nods.
“And three, now he doesn’t want me to come up there again and even pulled me off the schedule. Which is something he would not normally do, you must agree.”
“No, not normally, but…”
“FOUR!” Helena thumps the counter. One of the kittens lets out another meew. “I just realised! Why was Fred up at the field this morning when he was supposed to check out the east field and the bloody cows? That is way on the other side of the park!” She stares at his friend who looks back at her, bewildered.
“So… I don’t know!” Helena rolls her eyes.
“And five” Marina continues for her, “you mysteriously don’t want to tell the mysterious man about that mysterious necklace.” She winks. “Very mysterious. Tell me about it when you find out more. It is a beautiful necklace.”
Another meew comes from the cafeteria floor. One of the kittens has managed to crawl under one of the benches.
The bread basket is on the kitchen table, kittens asleep and well, when Helena steps into the bathroom. She leans over the sink and examines her face in the mirror. The time spent in the open air with Fred is not doing her skin a lot of favours. The lines around her face have become more pronounced since she started her internship. Isn’t forty-seven a bit old to start a new career, her mother had asked when she told her about her plans. Helena had shrugged and told her that it wasn’t the first new career she had ever started. Maybe she was making a career out of new careers. Her mother had only rolled her eyes at her.
Helena traces the lines around her eyes with her finger, and then down her nose and along the sides of her mouth. Are little wrinkles developing around her lips now? That is new. As are some of the darker areas on her cheeks. They weren’t there yesterday, were they? Some have also appeared on the backs of her hands. They remind Helena of some of the mushrooms that spring up on fallen trees in the forest. They appear overnight and, while certainly not ugly, they are a stark reminder of the cycle of nature. After all, the wood they are growing on is slowly being consumed and reduced to elements that would feed the world around it again. Helena has always liked mushrooms.
She puts the kittens carefully on the floor and gets ready for bed when something draws her attention. A soft jingling noise can be heard in the living room. Did she leave anything on this morning? She does not own a lot of electronic devices. And this doesn’t sound electronic either. Yet she can not pin down what it does sound like. Is it something outside? Did she close all the windows? Barefoot and quietly, Helena steps over the kittens and enters the living room where her tea mug is still standing on the coffee table where she put it when she thought she finally had some time to sit down. It had been a mistake. The kittens had immediately demanded her attention and nourishment. The tea had gone cold, the mug forgotten.
Helena switches on the lights over the couch. The sound is not coming from outside, that is for sure. It is coming from something, somewhere inside the room. Helena scans the room. She gasps. The pocket of her fleece sweater is glowing. A golden light is pulsing inside of it. What should she do?