The wind howled past the windows with a ferocity that made Agnes Murple grit her teeth and quake in her black Velcro walking shoes. She hadn’t moved from her post behind the grand mahogany desk in hours, despite the couple who perused the rows of European antiques with evident interest. They were forced to journey to her over and over with their questions about the different pieces of furniture, and it pleased Agnes to make them work for it. She found it disturbing that people so young could afford these luxury items that belonged in a castle; Ikea furniture would be more suitable for them and their snotty nosed children.
Her spectacled eagle eyes escorted them around the cavernous room, hoping to pin a price tag on them for damaged goods, but the woman skillfully maneuvered the umbrella stroller back toward the desk. A little boy sat with his head bowed over a phone, watching a movie.
“The storm is coming in fast, isn’t it?!”
Agnes didn’t return the woman’s smile, just waited for communication more worthy of a response.
“We’re going to think about the Victorian hutch tonight and measure our space. Hold on, let me go grab my husband.” Her laugh jingled like the bell on the door. “He would happily spend the whole day here if I let him.” She left the boy sitting by the desk.
Trip. Trip. Agnes squinted her eyes and willed her to fall- crash into a glass door front, smash a delicate chair leg- truly make her day. The lady moved gracefully, though, so Agnes turned instead on the boy who clutched the singing phone with his grubby fingers. The abrasive sound of saws and ice picks clashed with the violin music floating through the store.
“We have a strict no screens policy here.”
The two year old slowly lifted his head and looked up at her with round, blue eyes.
Agnes lifted one side of her top lip in a snarl that had taken her years to perfect in front of the mirror, a delightfully hideous facial distortion. The child’s lower lip quivered, and he dropped his gaze to the phone that sang:
“Cut through the heart cold and clear!
Strike for love and strike for fear!
There’s beauty and there’s danger here
Split the ice apart!
Beware the frozen heart…”
The couple returned to the front desk hand in hand, gushing over their favorite pieces of furniture.
“We’ll call tomorrow with our decision.”
“Very well,” Agnes said, disgusted.
A huge blast of wind rattled the front door, and worry creased the woman’s brow as she looked from the snow spattered windows back to Agnes. “Will you be okay? Do you need help getting to your car?”
Then the woman did something truly horrifying- she reached out and touched Agnes with her warm fingers. Agnes instinctively hissed in her breath and leapt backwards, the chair clattering to the floor behind her. The couple gaped at her with open-mouthed shock.
“I can take care of myself,” she snapped.
They nodded and exited quickly. As soon as the door slammed shut, the phone rang.
“Agnes, dear, I know this is a lot to ask of you, but would you mind locking up the shop? I don’t want to drive back through this snow.”
“I’m fully capable, but I don’t have a key.”
“Yes, of course you are, Agnes. I accidentally left my keys on the desk in my office when I left for lunch. Please lock up now and head straight out before the storm gets worse, okay? Just the front door.”
She hung up the phone and shuffled to the front door, creaky and brittle despite her remarkable leap a few minutes ago, which had been forced by necessity. She stared out at the storm and debated her next move.
Flashes of old memories fogged her vision; endlessly stumbling through swirling snow drifts, no longer being able to hold onto Timmy’s hand, and then later, the pain of the guilt as well as the returning warmth to her extremities, particularly her nose. It had borne the brunt of the trauma and also the jokes. She growled and turned the bolt lock. Braving the blizzard was not an option she would choose twice.
Under the sparkles of crystal chandeliers, Agnes trekked past ornately carved wood furniture she would never be able to afford toward the office of the employers she hated. Younger than her by at least ten years, Betsy and Bob were self-righteous and secretive, and during the two years she had worked for them, there had never been a moment when they weren’t in the office or lurking about the building, until now.
She paused when she heard a male voice, a British accent that droned softly. “The permafrost is ground that remains frozen for at least two years.”
Agnes recognized the sound of the National Geographic Channel, her favorite way to fall asleep in her one room apartment since it was so incredibly boring; she hated nature.
She entered the large office and clicked off the TV on the bookshelf. She grabbed the ring full of keys and studied the metal filing cabinets lining the back wall. Would the keys unlock those?
She stood on the edge- this precipitous moment offered a chance to explore and possibly solve the mystery of The European Emporium. Agnes grinned, her lips splitting to reveal crooked, sharp teeth, and she stepped forward, not one to let a moment slip by unsatisfied.
Success greeted her when the first key slid smoothly into the lock and clicked. Luck was on her side, as always. She opened the drawer and discovered a packed space divided by continents and smaller folders divided by countries. South Africa, Kenya, Australia, Russia, and Canada bulged with extreme quantities of paper.
She pulled out the South Africa folder and flipped through the documents inside of it: page after page of invoices listing animal names and body parts with sums of money ranging from $3,000 to $112,000. What in the world? Nothing about antiques.
Agnes replaced the folder and slammed the drawer shut. She knew exactly where she would go next: the wallpapered door.
With key ring in hand, she made her way to the back wall of the building. Giant double doors made of thick maple allowed workers to haul bulky furniture in and out. The antiques, which Betsy hand-picked on her trips overseas, arrived in Boston Harbor twice a year on a boat from Europe. Agnes assumed there were more antiques behind those doors, so they held no appeal.
The door that interested her was off in the corner, disguised by damask wallpaper that also lined the back wall. She hadn’t noticed it until the beginning of her second year of employment.
She rested her hands on the soft green swirls of flocked velvet and leaned her ear close, waiting. None of the usual sounds came from the back, the strange ones the violins were meant to drown out.
She realized she was panting, and her nails had curled into the plush greenery as her heart raced with excitement. She would uncover their secret operation and trap them with their lies. She would bring down the beast.
Agnes assessed the key hole above the green, glass doorknob, presumably another rare antique, and flipped through the mismatched bunch of roughly cut nickel and brass keys until she came to a dark, slender skeleton key. She inserted it, and with one twitch of her wrist, the wallpapered door swung open.
Automatic motion sensor lights flicked on one by one in response to her presence, gradually illuminating the whole room and revealing the ghastly truth. She had indeed found the heart of the operation, as well as the rest of the body parts, all tucked away in a disturbing labyrinth of death. Rare creatures lined the walls in various stages of completion, frozen in positions that suggested motion. Taxidermy.
In the middle of the room stood the largest life size mount, a completed display of a lion leaping onto the back of an antelope. Agnes leaned in close to inspect the lion’s claws where they met the antelope hide, digging in and wrinkling the fur in a realistic assault. “Those sick bastards,” she whispered.
She continued to explore the room with a permanent grimace plastered on her face. She pulled out a drawer and gasped at a hundred marble eyeballs, glowing and lifelike in little square dividers. Cabinets lined the walls with labels for chemicals, clay, and cotton stuffing. Wire bodies sat on shelves, and skins hung from clip hangers on a clothing rack. One table displayed an assortment of bleached skulls identified with formal plaques like a museum… Giraffe, Hippopotamus, Polar bear, and Crocodile.
Despite the appearance of order and cleanliness, numerous smells assaulted her nose: animal musk, ash, sharp chemicals, and sickly sweet blood. She found the source of the ash smell at the back, a huge incinerator. For the guts? And who knows what else, she thought.
Before she could stop herself, the grimace turned into a wicked grin. This was leaps and bounds better than she’d expected. When she lifted a piece of canvas and uncovered an elephant head, Agnes cackled with joy. This couldn’t be legal. The heaps of grizzly evidence would bring them down, those condescending, antique pawning, demented, animal hacking creeps! She simultaneously hated and loved them for it; this was the happiest day of her life.
Then Agnes spotted the gray door to a walk in freezer, and a refreshing chill ran up her spine at the thought of the incriminating bodies hidden inside. She hadn’t felt this alive in years. Her key ring came through for the win yet again, and she pulled with all her might to open the heavy door.
White light flooded an icy room packed with boxes and wooden crates. Intoxicating elation saturated her brain as her breath puffed in little clouds around her face. This was it. She eagerly paced forward to explore their stockpile.
Agnes ripped open the nearest cardboard box and pulled out a spotted owl. She stared at it in amazement; it really did look wise, and it stared right back at her. Then the door clicked shut, and the light went out.
“No,” she hooted. “No!”
Still clutching the leg of the owl, Agnes staggered through the darkness to the door. She couldn’t find a handle or door bar anywhere, so she just shoved, to no avail. Her shoes slid on the slick floor until she went down to her knees with a sickening crunch. The talons of the owl dug deeply into her thigh. She moaned and rolled away from the pain, off the cold floor that burned her skin.
The air she dragged into her lungs didn’t satisfy, and panic seized her chest. They couldn’t do this to her… Agnes ran for the door, trusting luck to get her through once again. Solid metal slammed her before she expected it and knocked her to the ground, but this time she landed on her toes and fingers like a cat. A low growl rumbled in her throat and mingled with her mounting rage, until it ripped out of her in a feral scream.
She would tear the place to shreds! She leapt to the nearest shelf and shoved boxes sideways, roaring as they crashed to the ground. She kicked and jumped on them, exhilarated by her invisible power, heedless of when her body parts smashed into things.
Howls and fur and squawks and feathers!
The thought of them finding a freezer full of animal mayhem sent her into shrieks of laughter that the thick walls silently absorbed. She cursed their names and spat on the floor. When a box tumbled onto her head, she merely stumbled backward, then righted herself with a black smile. Her overloaded sensory system felt no pain; crazed with destruction and pulsing with the continuous flow of erratic movement, all she felt was wild.
Time eventually slowed down to a sluggish lub… dub…
Agnes haltingly crawled across the floor in what seemed to be the direction of the door, the skin on her fingers sticking and ripping each time she lifted a hand. Keys jingled in the inky vastness, so she must be close. She held one hand up toward the door and put on her favorite mirror face, slowly pulling the skin into position as her pulse slowed down. Her last remaining energy went into preserving the sneer.
Two days later…
The metal door screeched as it rolled up, and a flurry of snowflakes and exhaust fumes briefly blew into the taxidermy room before the engine of the truck turned off. Two men grunted as they hauled a large wooden crate into the room.
“I’ve never seen that much snow. I shoveled my driveway for three hours yesterday!”
“Took me thirty minutes with my blower. I knew you’d regret not getting one.”
“Jerk. Why didn’t you bring it over?”
“Like this hyena. Let’s set it down so I can get the freezer key.” He rummaged through his pockets.
“Hurry up. I need to take a dump.”
“You gotta start doing that at home, man.” He inserted the key into the lock and swung the door open.
“AH!” Both men jumped backward, their feet hit the crate, and they tumbled down behind it. They scrambled to untangle their pile of arms and legs, then stood, and crept toward the freezer with wide eyes.
Just inside the door, perched in front of a frozen animal warzone, sat a frosty old lady. She knelt on her hands and knees with one clawed hand reaching out to snag someone like an angry puma. Crystallized blood from a gash on her forehead trailed into one eye, filling it until it gleamed bright red, then spilled over again in a stream to her mouth. Frothy blood and spittle foamed at the edges of her lips, the bubbles frozen in place.
But more horrifying than the blood, which added a violent bloom of abstract color to the white freezer walls and floor, was her facial expression. Her eyebrows formed a sharp V-shape, she crunched her nose, and pointed her tongue out between bared teeth.
“I think this one ran out of luck.”
“I’ve been doing taxidermy for fifteen years, and that is the scariest creature I have ever seen.”
“It’s like a relic from the Ice Age.”
“Who is she?”
“The old lady from the antique room. Look, the keys are by her hand. I wonder why she couldn’t get out.”
“Eesh. Not her best moment.”
“What are we gonna do with her?”
“We’ll put her in the incinerator. She’s overdue for a deep thaw.”
“Dude, I really gotta go. The throne is calling me.”
“Come right back when you’re done to help me with this mess. Don’t sit there on your phone like last time.”
“Chill, dude!” he said with a laugh.
And just like that, after sixty years of extra chances, fate finally slammed the door on Agnes Murple.