Heading downstairs with suitcase and laptop bag in hand I stopped mid-step to the cynical look on Mrs L’s face standing at the bottom, arms folded.
“Morgan surely you are not going to London on the train dressed like that?” Her eyebrows raised eyeing me from top to toe.
Looking down at my grey jersey skirt, black t-shirt with a water coloured expressionist painting of the Beatles, and heeled knee black boots, I couldn’t see what the fuss was about.
“London my girl. Do you know how many…strange men are in London?”
Well actually I didn’t I had never been to London before, in fact I had never been anywhere outside of Castle Carey in the south of England before. But damn, if there were strange men in London then I wanted to meet them. As usual I knew Mrs L was not finished with me yet.
“Your skirt…it’s far too short. They will think you…a hussy.” She said her face as usual, going from skeptical to that of an anguished mother sending her child to their first day a kindergarten. “Morgan, you will have every sexual misfit and predator following you.” Oh, how I wished someone would. Castle Cary was not known for its young good-looking men, well not anyone under fifty that was.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I was already running late I would have had to endure at least another thirty minutes of Mrs L’s lecture on the beasts of London and how my apparel was that of a hooker. Don’t get me wrong I love the woman. She had taken me in five years ago after my mother was killed in a car accident, and not having any relatives, well it was her or a foster home.
For weeks, I had been looking forward to going to the annual London Antiques Auction. I booked my room at a small boutique hotel in advance and a few days before the auction. There was no way I was going to miss out on visiting all the stores and eateries. Yep I was going to eat what I wanted and shop till I dropped, literally, and if I happened upon a decent looking handsome man in the process, well, so be it.
After arriving at the hotel and settling in I went for a walk and discovered a small leather store hidden behind a carpet shop. The only reason I knew it was there was the smell of leather, I loved the earthy rich smell of it, so much so I think I would have been a danger around cowboys. Whether or not they would appreciate me sniffing their leather boots, belts and anything else leather they hung on their bodies, one would never know. However, I needed to make some new quivers to hold arrows and bolts, and leather would do the job nicely, along with some rivets. Luckily the store had everything I needed, and having the seller send them directly to my store, saved me from having to carry them home.
This is why I was in London, to look for more supplies for my store Duffy’s Antique Emporium. Although I sold various items of books, vases and the usual historical bric-a-brac I was after weapons. They were the main item of my emporium. I was disappointed not to find any stores selling them, not antiques anyway, plenty of duplicitous and counterfeit pieces, much to the dismay of the various sellers I informed, not doubting for a moment they had any intention of putting their prices down or of informing customers that they in fact were not antiques.
On opening day of the fair, I was so excited I was a bumbling mess, dropping my bag at least three times. I wanted to come across as a business owner so I wore my black slacks, white open neck shirt and black jacket, not wanting anyone to think I was a country girl who didn’t have a clue how to negotiate. Well, I was a country girl but they didn’t need to know that straight off the bat. Today I was Morgan Saunders, sophisticated manager of an elite antiques store.
I had a customer list of requests, so they would be first on the list to seek out. The fair was packed with tables and marquee and more people than I had seen in one place. I felt like a child let loose in a sweet shop and not just because of the antiques on sale. Gorgeous men were everywhere, some in suits, some in casual wear, and two men that looked like they had just come from a gym in their clingy activewear. Breath Morgan breath.
It took me a few minutes but I got my head back into why I was here and within the first hour I had paid and arranged for a delivery of six Roman pugio daggers, a Chinese repeating crossbow from the fourth century, a beautiful pair of Belgian flintlock pirate dueling pistols and a lady’s pocket flintlock pistol with a gold finish. A very good buy for the first day, a very good buy indeed.
As I wandered past a table selling Roman coins of every denomination, Joe appeared. What the hell! Joe was Mrs L’s son, a month ago he had turned up out of the blue. It was strange because she had never mentioned having a son until then.
I first met him arriving home from work. First thoughts? he reminded me of a cockroach. I am not one to compare a person with an animal, or in his case an insect, but damn the man was ugly. He had no neck and his shoulders began where his head ended. Short cropped black hair, bulging waistline and foul stench that was sufficient for me to take a step back, and not an iota of resemblance to his mother.
Now here he was at the fair invading my space with his stink. I was aware the coin seller was attempted in vain to capture my attention. I just stood there with my mouth open, not a good thing when his rotting scent was circling my body like a lasso. Joe looked pleased to see me. Then his mother appeared at his side.
She had said nothing about coming to London. I had waved goodbye to her a few days ago after she had admonished me over my clothing. Now here she was too, but what caught my eye was her face, she had a smile but her eyes looked down right sorrowful.
Joe said, “How fortuitous Morgan in meeting you here.”
I raised my eyebrow, “Really?” A strange thing to say seeing as he knew I was coming to the fair. I have no doubt that he had come here deliberately, for what reason I had no idea. He creeped me out and the last thing I wanted was to be followed around the fair with the stinking beast from the black lagoon in tow.
Ignoring my comment, he continued, “Seeing as we are all here, perhaps you would like to join us this evening for dinner?”
Before I could answer I could have sworn I saw him nudge his mother hard with an elbow. “Thank you, but I really don’t have the time- “
“Please come Morgan.” Mrs Lockmeadow insisted placing her hand on my arm. “It has been such a long time since we had dinner together.”
Well not really, we had had dinner together only last week. Something was wrong here, she looked pale and a little scared. I narrowed my eyes at Joe, what had he done to her? There would have been no way that I would have accepted his dinner invitation, however I needed to find out what the hell was wrong with Mrs L.
Mrs Lockmeadow was a no nonsense woman, she did nonetheless have a kind heart. She had taken me in after all, and while I suffered her lectures from time to time about my clothing or the state of my room, she had never treated me badly. Mrs L wasn’t an affectionate woman by any means but she never missed my birthday with a small cake she had made herself. She was a good cook and most nights it was just the two of us at dinner and when she wasn’t cooking she was knitting for the local women’s association.
I accepted the dinner invitation, not happily. Just the thought of trying to eat at the same table as Joe made my stomach roil. Still I wanted to know what was going on and why they were both in London.
I continued my treasure hunt, though now with less enthusiasm. Mrs L’s demeanor was bothering me and did so for most of the afternoon. Before leaving the fair for the day I spoke to one short French looking Mr de Marko. He looked like he had stepped out of a 1920’s silent movie. A slim stick of a moustache and his hair parted in the middle slicked down with oil or grease, or whatever it was he had used. When he shook hands with me it was actually more of a quick pinky shake. Strange little man.
We spent a good hour discussing various weapons and one in particular one of my customers required. We agreed to meet on Wednesday at his office, which was fortunately in London where he would check his sellers for the items I needed.
Dinner that evening was at a cheap, and not so frequented restaurant in a back street. The sorry state of the area with walls of abandoned shops littered with graffiti added nothing to the ambience of the restaurant. The taxi driver asked me twice if I was sure this was where I needed to be dropped off. I wanted him to take me back to the hotel and quick smart, but no. I had to have this dinner, if only to discover why Mrs L was so afraid. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious, my palms were sweating, it felt like a storm was coming.
I should not have expected anything more than this lowly restaurant tucked away in the back streets. Joe being the new Castle Cary constable. His meagre wage could account for such a restaurant. I had a fleeting thought he was doing his best with what he had. The thoughts nonetheless were just that, fleeting. I didn’t give a rat’s tail what his financial state was, there were many fine restaurants within London suiting all manner of finances. Why he would have chosen one in such an isolated location was baffling.
The interior of the restaurant smelt as bad as the outside, somewhere between alleyway garbage and unwashed clothing. With not many customers a table would have been no problem. The lighting was dim, no doubt so you could see what garbage you were eating. Joe and his mother were already seated when I arrived. If Mrs L looked bad at the fair, then she was worse now, her eyes red rimmed as if she had been crying. She gave me a weak smile as I sat down, before her eyes dropped to the table. Joe appeared to be his cheery non-smiling self.
“Glad you could join us for dinner Morgan. Mother has been looking forward to it.’
I jumped right on in. “Why are you in London and why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” I wasn’t happy to be here having dinner with him, and the quick grimace of his mother’s face told me she wasn’t happy to be there either.
’Business…I am here on official police business. Seeing as I was coming to London, I thought mother would also like to come…it was lucky that we bumped into you at the fair.” He mumbled as he poured himself a glass of water. He looked agitated and kept giving his mother side glances.
With a raised eyebrow, I did not think for one minute that was the case. “You had police business at the fair? What kind of police business?” I questioned.
Joe took another sip of his water. “I cannot say…it is…secret police business.”
Now I was intrigued. He sounded like a child playing cops and robbers. Secret police business, really? It was not hard to tell the man was lying, and the more he did so the more unsettled his mother became. Mrs L looked up quickly every now and again at the door. It was if she was thinking of make a run for it.
I leaned towards her. “Mrs L are you ok?” she simply nodded but didn’t raise her eyes from the table.
“I have taken the liberty of ordering your meal for you Morgan. I have ordered us all steak and salad.” Joe said with a smug look on his face.
I raised my eyebrows. “Did you now, how considerate of you. I do not however, eat red meat. I would have preferred to have seen the menu first.” I was angry now, who the hell did he think he was? Controlling bastard.
He leaned over the table, a serious look on his face. “You will eat the steak and you will enjoy it.”
If it hadn’t been for the small shake of the head and pleading look in Mrs L’s eyes, I would have stood up and left right there and then, after smacking him one across the face for being a controlling dick. However, Mrs L now looked terrified. I didn’t want to leave her there with the cockroach. I needed to find out what was going on. I gave him a derisive look and said nothing. Not an easy thing for me to do.
In the middle of the unpleasant meal, not touching the steak, I felt ill, my head was spinning, and felt the need to throw up. I could barely hear Mrs L’s echoing voice asking if I was all right, it sounded like we were at each end of a drum. Joe helped me out of my chair, saying he would take me back to my hotel. I didn’t want him touching me, I was so going to regret this. I remembered trying to move away from him, from his putrid smell, which made my stomach roil even more.
In doing so I bumped into the waiter carrying a tray that ended up being worn by the patrons of a nearby table. They scrambled out of their chairs awash with soup flowing freely over everything and everyone. Joe had gripped my elbow, guiding me wobbling and tottering across the faded yellow linoleum floors, whilst I struggled to stay upright. I had no recollection of how we got to the hotel.
Climbing the carpet clad stairs my last thought was of Joe painfully grasping my arm. Then nothing. I descended into blackness. Until I awoke seven days later in my bed in his mother’s house.