27 - Matt Cook

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Matt Cook lived on the other side of town, in a subdivision that crouched in the twilight area between suburb and desert. The subdivision itself was nice, filled with cookie-cutter new-construction houses and carefully xeriscaped yards. But just on the other side, behind the stone walls and fences, lay a dusty expanse of desert that faded into rocks and a stony bluff. Coyotes would venture down into the neighborhood sometimes, nosing through garbage or hunting stray cats. Roadrunners would cross through driveways. The neighborhood would, at times, be reminded that it wasn't so far from the wilds that had been conquered for its birth.

Nat pulled up to the curb and double-checked the address she'd saved to her phone. This was definitely the right house. She was a few minutes early for their appointment, but she hoped he wouldn't mind. She wanted to get this done as soon as possible.

She climbed out of the van and went around back to unload the dog, cursing at how many times now she'd had to handle it. Gooseflesh crept up her skin wherever the fur touched her, and she shuddered as she stood at the door step, taxidermy hound standing in front of her, her finger on the doorbell button. The hair on her forearms stood on end despite the heat that was building from the mid-morning sun.

The man who answered looked precisely the way Nat had imagined a taxidermy expert would: equal parts bookish and woodsy, a broad-shouldered man with big hands and a thick graying beard, round glasses perched on the edge of his nose. If he had been about 40 years younger, she might have considered him as a hipster. But he was the authentic article, whatever the term was for the aesthetic that hipsters would come to ironically borrow.

Matt Cook's eyes dropped down to the dog on his front porch, and a smile twitched up through his facial hair, splitting the gray-blonde curls of his moustache. "He's a lovely specimen. Liz didn't lie about that."

He backed away from the door, nodding for her to come in, and Nat bent to lift the dog once again and half-carry, half-scoot it through the door. They settled in the living room, her sitting on a green wingback chair, the dog on the coffee table. 

The living room, like the subdivision, existed at an awkward intersection of suburbia and wilderness. The house itself was new, with white walls and modern fixtures, but the furnishings and decor felt like an old hunting lodge. As she might have expected, the house was decorated liberally in taxidermy. Trophy-mounted heads stared down at her with glass eyes from the walls above, forming a ring of deer and antelope and one tired-looking moose. A pair of pheasants, preserved in flight, hung suspended overhead. A white polar bear-skin rug lay sprawled in the entry way, mouth open and teeth bared in a lazy sort of snarl.

But there were other pieces, too, stranger oddities. On the mantle, a raven dressed in a priest's collar, with a pair of tiny spectacles perched on its beak. A glass-domed diorama of mice dressed garishly as schoolchildren, sitting in a tiny classroom. Everywhere, creatures caught in suspended animation, dead yet glassy-eyed with a simulacrum of life.

Matt ran a hand back through his scraggly fringe of hair, bordering a bald spot up top, his eyes locked on the taxidermy dog. After an uncomfortably long silence, he struggled to tear his gaze away. "Do you need anything? A cup of coffee or...?"

Nat shook her head. "I'm fine. So Liz, ah, told you about the dog...?"

He nodded, approaching the coffee table from the opposite side to run his hands down the back and sides of the animal, brow furrowed. His eyes were narrowed in concentration behind the frames of his glasses, which had slipped down the bridge of his nose. 

There was something intimate, nearly obscene, about the way his hands touched the hound. No, not touched — caressed. His fingertips worked over the shining pelt, buried themselves into the silken black fur, worked their way down to the leather beneath and prodded at whatever lay below that to give the dog its form.

Nat looked away, feeling uneasy.

But she said nothing, waiting for him to speak, anticipation building painfully in her chest. 


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