Today's Reading

I rose, picked up my purse, and made my way to the general store. A cowbell jangled as I entered. "'I got a fever,'" I muttered. "'And the only prescription is more cowbell.'" The line made me smile. Why worry about earthquakes, lack of electricity, and the inability to do my work when the world needed more cowbell?

"What?" A young, freckle-faced woman with a smear of dirt on her nose stopped replacing items on the shelf.

"Iconic Saturday Night Live line—more cowbell?"

"Huh?"

"Never mind." The interior had old oak floors, a tin ceiling, and a long counter with a glass display case. The sun through the window spotlighted twirling dust motes. Various cans still littered the floor, courtesy of the earthquake.

"Just let me know if ya need something."

"Powder room?"

"Huh?"

"WC?"

"I think we're sold out."

"John? Head? Loo? Restroom?"

"Toilet?" She nodded to her right.

Fortunately, the primitive conditions did not include the store bathroom. Returning to the store, I picked up a can of soup that had rolled near me. "Do you know anything about those two dogs?" I handed her the can.

"Why are ya asking?" The woman placed it on the shelf.

"They just seem thin, that's all."
"Yeah, well." She adjusted the display. "Sam's been feeding 'em, but that's gonna stop."

My neck tingled. "I don't understand." I gave her a steady gaze.

She paused her work and looked around. We were alone in the store, but she dropped her voice to just above a whisper. "He's just waitin' for all of you to leave to the ranch."

The tingling grew to an itch. My years of training as a forensic linguist kicked in, even though I was rusty. I grew very still and waited, listening for more clues in her language.

She gave up straightening the cans. "It's like this: The dogs were owned by an old lady. I bet she was, like, at least forty."

"Positively ancient. One foot in the grave." I gave her a slight smile.

"Right. Her name was Shadow Woman. That's what everyone called her. Well, that's the nice name anyway. She was, like, a hermit, but a pretty good artist." She jerked her thumb at a drawing on the wall behind the cash register.

Were owned, was. Past tense. I widened my smile to encourage her. "Why did everyone call her Shadow Woman?"

The clerk gnawed on a hangnail for a moment. "I guess 'cause she was weird, ya know, like she lived in the shadows. Creepy. Always showed up here at the store at dusk or when it was dark. Sam said she could sneak right up next to you in the shadows and you'd never see her. And her face was weird."

"Weird how?"

"Like, really weird."

"Ah, that clarifies it. Where did she come from?"

"Sam said she ran away from a group home near Smelterville."

"I can't imagine why."

"Right, you know? No one wanted her. Anyway, she owned Holly—that's the Lab mix—and Maverick, the Anna-toolian sheepdog."

"Anatolian? From Anatolia in Asia Minor?"

"Yeah, that's what I said."

"Of course. I thought the big dog was half Great Dane, half mastiff."

"Nope. Sam looked it up. Anna-whatevers are super-expensive livestock guard dogs from Turkey or France, I forget which."

"They are such similar countries," I murmured.

"Right. So anyway, Sam was surprised that Shadow Woman had one."
...

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