Lot 62, p.1
A Short Story from The Little Shop of Wonders
By Robert Appleton
Copyright @ Robert Appleton 2016
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
This book is a work of fiction. Characters, names, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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"I loved the old Twilight Zone episodes and the best description I have for this book is that it is similar to those tales. If you are a fan of these kind of offbeat, unusual but intriguing stories then you will enjoy the Esther May Morrow tales." -- The Romance Studio
"Once you open the cover, you won't be able to turn pages fast enough to read through this exciting collection of short stories, all involving the mysterious Esther May Morrow. Mr. Appleton writes with such description and reality, you'll be swept into each chapter and experience the story along with the characters. If you learn anything from his creative genius, it's... be careful what you wish for." -- The Examiner
"This first collection in [Appleton]'s short story cycle pulls the reader in easily, incorporating the character of Esther as a background fixture with enormous impact. Each story is both unique and complete yet allows Esther to appear in subsequent tales with ease. This reviewer looks forward to reading more about this intriguing character." -- Bitten by Books
Now available: The Little Shop of Wonders: The Complete Anthology...
No matter how hard you try, no matter how far you look, you will never find this shop.
It will find you.
Dreams, desires, the most outlandish wishes: all are for sale at Esther May Morrow’s timeless antiques and sundries store, for the bargain price of...well, that would be telling. You’ll have to see for yourself. So come on in. Don’t be shy. Make her an offer. She never refuses anyone.
There’s just one thing I should mention: each purchase comes with an absolute guarantee—no one who leaves her shop will be ever the same again.
Features nine* irresistible tales of mystery, intrigue and the paranormal:
THE CONSCRIPTED MAN
THE TEMPORAL MAN
*Stories also available separately
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Rain swept across the concrete overpass at a slipway junction of the A666, Farnworth. Julie Blalock marched uphill, her eyes squarely on the suited man holding a grey umbrella in the centre of the bridge. Road works rerouted traffic to the next slipway, leaving the bridge completely empty. Vantage-wise, the man's position was sheltered from the thoroughfare below by a large, green information sign. All in all, he was well hidden.
If this is some lame attempt to get me to go back, they picked the right day for it, she thought. Chances? Pretty grim. Unless...
Her designer white Mackintosh, trimmed with raised black stitching, had bold, black buttons and was knee-length, the bottom third opening with every stride to reveal exquisitely toned calves and thighs. Her long brunette hair, draped from beneath a white beret, streamed sideways as the wind picked up. Julie was just as stunning eight years on, perhaps more so, as her high cheekbones now angled the smoothness of that teenage face into something striking, of real definition.
Rain pelted the steel railings. The tinny, shrapnel sound reminded her of sniper bullets clanking off target into metal walls, just like the siege in Lebanon—her second assignment, over a decade ago. Julie shuddered at the memory.
The man under the umbrella was intense, tight-faced. As Julie was a foot shorter than he was—only five-two—her umbrella caught the run-off from his. The stream soaked his jacket for a moment before he stepped to one side. “Miss Blalock, how do you do? My name's Warwick, I'm from the Ministry of Defence."
She shook his hand warily. “How do you do?"
"I'm sorry the meeting had to be out here, but we couldn't wait. The Section Chief okayed your personnel record this morning—well, most of it. Christ, it's really bucketing down now. All the better for secrecy, I suppose.” He shivered and pulled his lapels tight together under his chin. Between the wind and the thundering rain, he had almost to shout to be heard.
"Don't worry,” she yelled. “I haven't forgotten how to lip-read. Go on."
He nodded, his face still bunched with a scowl. “Very well. We'd like you to come down to London this evening, for a one-time op. Strictest secrecy. You're the closest we have to a look-alike, and you're accomplished in ... exactly this sort of thing.” Warwick cleared his throat. “What do you know about The Archangel?"
Her eyes danced for a moment. “At Sotheby's? The big-time auction?"
"Yes. It's lot number sixty-two on the docket ... tonight."
Julie suddenly remembered her lunch break was about to elapse. She'd received the phone call to meet on the bridge right in the middle of a much-needed cuppa. Bastards. Timing impeccable as always. Ah, to hell with the office, she thought. I'll come up with some excuse. Who's really ever accountable anyway, in ... accounting? She scoffed. But this sounded intriguing, even exciting. The notion stuck in her throat, lengthways—a bone of contention lowered by her conscience. She'd left the service years ago, and for good reason.
They killed Derek, for Christ's sake!
Not outright, blatant as a bullet through the brain; no, they'd cooked up that cock ‘n’ bull story about a boating accident and then, unforgivably, delivered it to the wrong man. That particular op had had nothing at all to do with Julie, and Derek, on hearing the news of his fiancée's—her—death, had ingested two bottles full of ... she couldn't remember their names ... a lethal medical cocktail. Bastards! How dare they! After all they've...
"Sotheby's? Where do I have to go first?” She swallowed bitterly. Her mouth curled with a warm, sinewy tremble. Through many a potent, carpe diem wakeup, she'd considered re-applying but Derek's unshaven face was always there, emblazoned on her mind. It had been eight years but Julie had never let the memory rest. How could she? Apologies had been made, but there was no forgiveness, least of all for herself. The love of her life ... pfft, gone ... just like that! If she hadn't been in the Service, he'd still be alive—simple as that. There was so much for Agent Julie Blalock to answer for, to atone for. But not as a junior accountant, not in this new life of browsing and nebulous partying and Saturday night flings mixed with office politics, jealousies, more deception than she'd ever practiced as an MI6 agent.
She had unfinished business.
"Tell me where to go,” she said as the rain eased to a drizzle.
"OK.” He nodded. “I'm glad you're in. We went through I don't know how many active agent profiles and none of them came close to yours. Even after eight years disavowed, you're still our best shot. OK, this is the deal—we need to find out as much as we can about this Archangel and its seller, a Ms. Esther May Morrow. She's not only confoundedly tight-mouthed, she's damn near a phantom citizen."
Julie kept her steely, blue-eyed gaze on him. He couldn't match her; either because he wasn't a trained field operative or, more likely and like most other men she'd met, he fancied her.
"Go on,” she said.
He let go of his lapels. They fell into place, creased, as a warm haze and its spectrum colours birthed over the motorway. “Listen, how about I fill you in on the go. We really haven't got a great deal of ti
"Works for me."
A host of traffic zapped by underneath. He turned and strode away to a grassy embankment at the bottom of the bridge. Julie had to scurry in her pesky high heels to catch up with him.
"Right, here's the thing—this Archangel is hot property, maybe the hottest on the market right now, only we're not sure why. Our sources have given us hints, a few vague clues, and far too many red herrings. But this auction tonight is by invitation only. Some of the richest buyers in the world will be there, and I tell you, each and every one of them had to write a formal application to this Esther May Morrow before she'd even consider giving them a seat. All damned irregular."
"I've heard of this treasure, The Archangel; knew it was priceless,” she replied. “But other than the auction tonight, it's all news to me."
"Indeed. We want you to assume the identity of this woman.” He slid a six-by-four-inch photograph from his inside jacket pocket and handed it to her. “And then extract any information you can from the Morrow woman. The seating has all been pre-planned, so we snatched her—name's Dorothy Buchan—last night. Her seat's right next to Esther May Morrow, back row centre. As far as we know they've never met, so you shouldn't have too much trouble there, but—and this is a big ‘but.'” He coughed in apology for the pun. “Mrs. Buchan is well-known around these high-end auctions. Her late husband had a large share in eastern European pipelines, so she's loaded and appropriately bored-to-a-frazzle by the sounds of it. A new chap every other week.
"Right, so you're to wheedle as much info as you can out of the seller—all the lots tonight are hers, I believe—and just get her to talk. You'll have a mike. Keep tabs on anyone she comments on. Remember, she approved every person in that room, so if there's anything dodgy about these sales, it's odds on she's complicit. We don't know any more than that, I'm afraid. Have you got any questions?"
"Just one.” Julie paused until a slow-moving taxi had passed. “Why are you interested in this thing? And this woman? What's important enough to worry the M.O.D?"
He sighed. “Can't tell you that, I'm afraid, Ms. Blalock. Those rumours I mentioned, Chinese whispers; let's just say they've rather deafened the annals. If this thing's what we suppose it is, we can't let it out of our sight. Don't worry, we've tightened up surveillance on Sotheby's. Every orifice of that place is covered. But this Morrow woman is the lynchpin. We've not been able to get close to her with all the press coverage, so you're our best, our only shot at some solid intel."
Sunshine glazed the slick tarmac, reflected blindingly off gutter pools and rain-minted cars. “I guess that's it. The address to go to is on the back of the picture I gave you. Keep it safe."
"Oh, just one last thing.” He leaned in with a sheepish curl of his mouth. “Mrs. Buchan is ... how can one put this ... a notorious ... um, xenophobe."
Julie tittered. “She's a racist to boot?"
"Afraid so. I'm sure you'll do fine. The bonus for something like this is usually..."
She interrupted with a smile, “I know. The pay never bothered me. Safe journey back, Warwick."
"Good luck,” he said, throwing her a wave. Walking away quickly up the steep pavement, he checked his peripheral vision on either side and then surveyed the busy road at the top of the hill. Just like clockwork, she thought, remembering how instinctively her own senses had sifted through the paranoid angles ... years ago ... and how acutely they'd returned from time to time since. Her lower back ached ... coincidentally? The injury had never fully healed. Murder by sex. She sighed. That hadn't been one of her proudest assignments. How short a time eight years was—the whole sordid affair seemed only yesterday.
She watched two Muslim ladies in full black dress walk by across the road. Their burqas covered everything but their eyes. Head to toe hidden but for that one slit for vision. Trying to conjure a few racist names she'd accrued over the years, she cringed. It just wasn't her. She had nothing against Muslims. But tonight she would have to have. Tonight she'd need ammunition to let fly against any foreigner in the room, if needed.
"Ah, well,” she said to herself, “it might lack class, but it won't be short on glamour.” Julie Blalock scurried back to the office, gathered her things, and rang a taxi to take her to the Farnworth Station. Not a word to her bosses. Not even a flick through tomorrow's schedule. Five hours later, when the train finally pulled into Charing Cross Station, she strode out amidst the crowd of well-dressed commuters. How little they know, she thought, of what an accountant can really get up to.
Lot 62 by Robert Appleton / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 3.4 out of 5 / Based on17 votes