It was dank and musty as a time-cellar inside Collins Square Antiques but at least it was slightly better-lit, and its shelves and tables were laden with a staggering array of junk. Still, it was definitely gloomy enough to warrant both Creepy and myself removing our sunnies when we entered the shop.
Part of my immediate association between this place and the cellars I’d been in and out of all-subjective-day, it occurred to me, was the strange assortment of doors.
Wherever there weren’t shelves or display cases or poster-racks, the walls of the crowded antique shop were decorated with doors of various types – front doors and farmhouse doors and saloon doors and garden gates. While they lacked the samey semi-modern tackiness of the time-cellar doorways, there was an eeriness about them. It was hard to tell whether there would be wall behind some, or other rooms, or a featureless darkness through which one might step into some unpleasant past or future.
This sensation was heightened even as we wandered deeper between the shelves, when one of the doors opened and Reggie Keyes scuttled through into the shop.
I’d known, on a deep-down intuitive level, that Reggie Keyes would be a scuttler. I had also known he would be small in stature, that his hair would be close-cropped and plastered-down in that certain ghastly fashion that made even a full head of hair look like a combover, and that he would be dapper – natty, even – in a faded and slightly shabby way, as though he was wearing some of his stock that he’d realised was never going to sell but he was too viscerally unpleasant to donate to a shelter. The sort of person, indeed, who might have married a person like Rose of the L&E tower lost and found, but then lacked the conviction to murder her when he discovered the sort of person she actually was – just as she had lacked the conviction to murder him – opting instead for a low-key-acrimonious divorce and a drawn-out and seemingly perpetual relationship of sniping, snarking, behind-the-hand smirking and behind-the-back badmouthing.
Reggie and Rose had dispensed with the for richer and poorer, the in sickness and in health, and they had most certainly abandoned the holy matrimony and wedded bliss. They had, however, kept a tight and greedy grip on the ‘til death do us part. And even three seconds after Reggie Keyes scuttled into his shop to greet us, I’d decided this dreary, awful fate couldn’t have befallen a more deserving pair.
“Good afternoon, gents,” Reggie said. Never before had such an innocuously friendly greeting sounded more like something my defence attourney would be presenting to the court as ‘Exhibit A’ during my trial. “What can I do for you?”
So unexpectedly seething were my reactions and allied expectations, I believe I actually heard him say “what can I do you for” even though he had in fact used the less-gratingly-jovial, more professional variant. I took a moment to calm my nerves, which must have been more frayed by my day’s work than I’d originally assumed, and glanced at Creepy as though wondering if he was going to back me up.
As I’d suspected he would, Creepy pretended instead to be extremely interested in a table laden with old doll parts. On consideration, I thought this was actually a smart thing for him to be doing, even if he actually thought he was only doing it to aggravate me. Those doll parts could be hiding something. A doll, for instance. I turned back to Reggie.
“We’re really just looking around,” I said. “Reggie, isn’t it? Reggie Keyes?”
As I’d once again known it would, this use of his name had an electrifying effect on the antique dealer. He hunched, looked back and forth shiftily, and opened his mouth to ask if we were cops.
“Why yes, that’s me,” he said instead, changing the script at the last minute – possibly because he’d actually looked at me and Creepy, and realised we couldn’t possibly be officers of the law. “Do I know you chaps?”
I was familiar, of course, with the progression from gents to chaps. Next would come young fellows, followed by gentlemen – I know it doesn’t sound like a logical continuum since he started with the foreshortened gents, but it’s a fact – and then rapidly degenerating through people, individuals, types, and then fanning out into the murky delta of such terms as layabouts, loiterers, slackers, bludgers, loafers, good-for-nothings, freeloaders, spongers and ne’er-do-wells. I rather liked ne’er-do-wells and hoped Reggie would take that tributary.
“Oh, no – sorry,” I said with a smile, “it’s just that we’re … associates … of Rose, at the L&E tower lost and found?” I’d considered adding Marion into the equation, but on the assumption that we were now happily living in a timeline where I’d never met either of them, I was more than willing to leave Marion out of it even if he was just a little bit culpable in all this. “I understand Rose is – was, uh … ”
“Yes,” Reggie said stiffly. “That’s right. Now I’m rather going to have to ask you to get to the point, young fellow … ”
“Alright, I will,” I said. Semi-random insertion of rather was another classic conversational ploy intended to establish superior class. A challenge, I thought, for the likes of Reggie Keyes. “Rose has told us you accept and sell on certain items she … borrows … from the lost and found at the L&E tower where she works,” Reggie gaped at me, and even Creepy was once again watching me narrowly, holding a doll leg in one hand and looking like a behind-the-scenes crewmember from a crude anti-abortion video. “Don’t worry, we’re not cops ‑ ”
“Well in that case, I think I’ll ask you gentlemen to ‑ ”
“ ‑ to leave and get the cops?” I interrupted delicately, and was warmed to the very core of my being by the queasy look on Reggie’s face. I’d always known there was such a thing as hate at first sight, of course, but I hadn’t experienced it quite this intensely with someone who wasn’t an actual alien warlord or demonic chancellor.
I wondered if maybe Reggie was one of those things. You never knew.
“There’s no need for this, my young friends,” Reggie desperately backpedalled up the terms-of-address sequence. “What exactly brings you here?”
“These,” Creepy had dropped the doll parts and plucked the pair of X-ray specs from a nearby shelf.
“Yes,” I said, “we’ll be taking those.”
Reggie squirmed. “But they weren’t ‑ ”
He was right, of course – in this timeline, Creepy hadn’t turned up with the cookhouse trumpet and traded it for the X-ray specs, only for Rose to turn up later and sell them back to Reggie as stolen property. So they were presumably of their original provenance, which may or may not have been completely legitimate. Still, it didn’t matter.
“We’ll be taking them, and returning them to their original owner,” I said, deliciously aware that in at least some chronocosmic sense this was completely true. “And we’ll say no more … ” I paused, having noticed something leaning against a head-high shelf behind Reggie. “Where did you get that?” I demanded, lunging around him and making him flinch and squawk.
“Ah,” he recovered, “ah, ah that. Yes, well, that is a genuine antique, it is in fact ‑ ”
“The cookhouse trumpet from the old Barnsley prison yard,” I said, turning the flattened and tarnished metal coil over in my hands, “damaged by vandals or perhaps a prison riot, and replaced with a new trumpet at a later date, but the original was assumed lost.”
“Close,” Reggie said, animosity forgotten in the light of knowing things. I actually found myself warming to him, albeit extremely slightly. “Very close. The trumpet was indeed destroyed by unknown miscreants, and it spelled the beginning of the end for the old prison yard. There were riots, several escape attempts that left many inmates dead from exposure – in some cases lead exposure, ha ha – and before anything so trivial as the cookhouse trumpet could be replaced, the salt mine itself was closed down. Many say the event coincided with the big land subsidence that left the salt lake inviable as a mining source, and the trumpet was damaged in the building collapse. As for how it ended up in my hands, well … ” he spread his hands and weasel-smiled in a way that was probably meant to imply that is a long and exciting story but which I interpreted as the trumpet got taken home by Colonel McOldentimes or one of the other guards, and a few years ago his twentysomething student grandkid found it in an attic and sold it to me for the price of a slab of beer.
“Does it still toot?” Creepy asked brightly.
“Are you out of your fucking mind?” I snapped, and held the battered remains of the trumpet up in front of Reggie Keyes’s unhappy face. “We’ll be taking this as well,” I said.
“This is blackmail,” Reggie complained.
“Not really,” I disagreed. “I have no real interest in holding your trivial wrongdoings over you – or the wrongdoings of your ex-wife, for that matter – and I have no intention of exposing you unless you make it absolutely necessary. I’m just too lazy for that sort of thing. Think of this more as … your opportunity to redress the balance, and right some of the wrongs you’ve sent out into the universe by selling things people have lost.”
“Fine,” Reggie grumbled. “Now will you please leave?”
“With pleasure,” I said, and turned. “Creepy?”
“Hatboy,” he said, inclined his head politely and preceded me towards the door. He opened it with another jingle, and as I stepped past him he turned back to look at Reggie with a puzzled little frown. “Is that gasoline I smell?”
Chortling, we donned our sunnies and headed back into the street.