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Morlan's Books & Curiosities: Whitlock

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The bell rang above the door as it swung open – not a sound you expect to hear anymore in a shop, but then Morlan’s Books & Curiosities is no ordinary shop. It has the strange, beguiling, and somewhat creepy atmosphere of the best used bookstores everywhere. The light filters through the front windows at a special angle, catching dust that gives the place a genuine appearance instead of an untidy one. Inside, charming old lamps cast enough light for ambience but not enough to really read by. The glass-paneled bookshelves hold volumes so old that you can tell by their spines alone; sometimes you catch the glint of a well-known title (probably a first edition) and other times the titles are unintelligible, rubbed away by a hundred years of handling. To get to the shelves you have to wend your way through all manner of interesting things: antique furniture, statues, sometimes some fine bits of clothing, bits and bobbles that might seem like junk anywhere else, but since they’re in such a store, you know they’re special. Touched by history. They meant something to someone once.

The spindly old gentleman for whom the store is named, Mr. Morlan himself, is always dressed the way you wish such proprietors would dress: a gray suit with a vest, a fine-pressed shirt, and a real pocket watch on a mellow golden chain. There’s something familiar in his voice, perhaps some elegant tones reminiscent of Peter O’Toole, and he has a way of addressing a body as though he’s been politely expecting them. For all of the cluttered profusion of knick-knacks and labyrinthine walkways, Mr. Morlan always knows where everything is; he’ll move right to a book if he has it in stock. He handles every piece so expertly in his long, smooth hands that everything he touches seems to glow with value and mystery. Who owned that copy of Moby Dick? From what corner of the world did that strange statue come? Mr. Morlan is known to make deals with those who feel like they couldn’t possibly afford something so fine (and, occasionally, it’s rumored he’s given things away to those who were “meant” to have them). By the time you step back out onto the sidewalk with a paper-wrapped treasure in hand, you’ll wonder just how long you were in the store. Like the best used bookstores, time warps within the confines of Morlan’s.

Judge Whitlock could tell all of that perfectly well just by looking at the place but he had no patience for it. He was on his lunch break and while Morlan’s wasn’t far, it wasn’t close in lunch-time traffic. He didn’t want to be seen anywhere near the odd little store or the odd man who owned it. He’d only come because Mr. Morlan had gone so far as to track down his office phone number and to leave a strange message. “This is Mr. Morlan, of Morlan’s Books & Curiosities. I believe I have something in my shop that belongs to you. Please feel free to come and pick it up at your convenience.” He left no address or phone number, no veiled request for legal help. That was the reason that most changelings tried to intrude into Whitlock’s daytime life. If a changeling needed more help than Diane could give or if they couldn’t stand dealing with Diane anymore, they ended up on Whitlock’s voice mail. Sometimes they’d be pushy, showing up at his office or walking up to his car. That was never to their benefit. Whitlock had a silent rule: the closer you got to his home, the higher the price would be. Any direct bother to his family was immediate grounds for vengeance, which would be arranged through the proper channels so as not to implicate him. Judge Whitlock was a man who valued his private life more than the lives of most people and he took any potential threat to his cover seriously.

Thus, Whitlock was impatient to be done with Morlan altogether. Morlan was a strange man with the reputation to match, even amongst changelings, and Whitlock wanted no part of some fae’s mind-games. What could Morlan possibly have that belonged to him? Who knew what Morlan was up to or what he really wanted? Who cared? Why had he even come? Whitlock made a point of heading right to the back of the shop upon entering, without dawdling to look at the wares. He didn’t want to give Morlan any opportunity to start his spiel. The old man was on an iron wrought stool examining a ledger with yellowed pages. He looked up with no apparent surprise but with a thin-lipped smile. The mellow light glowed on Morlan’s skin, which showed a few fine veins, a number of well-established wrinkles, and the translucent quality of old age. But for all of that, his eyes gave off a vital glint and his posture was far too limber for someone as old as he had to be. How old was Mr. Morlan, really?

“Ah, Your Honor, so good of you to come,” Morlan said with what sounded like just the right amount of genuine pleasure. “I hope the traffic wasn’t too difficult.”

He looked at Whitlock with interest but he still didn’t seem poised to ask for some legal wrangling, or for any favor at all. It was maddening.

“Not too bad for noon,” Whitlock said with a slight nod. He plunged his hands deep into his pockets irritably. “Your message said you have something for me?”

“Yes, indeed. Just a moment, please, Mr. Whitlock.” Morlan closed the ledger and put it in a drawer, which he then locked with a delicate key. The key, Whitlock noted, deftly went into his vest pocket. Morlan rose, smoothed his strange hands over his clothes, and walked toward the front of the store. Whitlock didn’t like when Morlan locked the front door and flipped the sign from “Open – Please Come In” to “Closed – Please Call Again.”

Morlan strode back with steps that were far too confident and said, “There. Come with me to the back.”

“Can’t you just tell me what you have?” Whitlock asked. He just wanted to get out of the claustrophobic little place. “I don’t have much time before I have to get back and I’m really not looking for anything right now.”

“This won’t take long, Mr. Whitlock,” Morlan said with an eerie kind of certainty. He started to walk toward a back door, which he opened and went through without looking back.

Damned Autumn Court bastards. I will not be intimidated.

Whitlock followed him into the dusty back storage space, full of crates and shapes draped in browned and yellowed cloths. Morlan stood near an easel with an old cover.

“Close the door, please,” he said, which Whitlock did with some annoyance. What was with all the secrecy? There was no one else in the store!

But when Morlan slipped the cover aside, Whitlock understood. The canvas screamed with color and it seemed like the rest of the colors in the room faded in comparison. At first, Whitlock stared without moving. His mind refused to believe what it was seeing.

“You can see why I wanted privacy,” Morlan explained gently. “This is not something that anyone else is meant to see. I’ve kept it back here since it came into my store.”

“Where did you get this?” Whitlock asked with a dry mouth.

“It was sold to me by a former owner. He said that he didn’t think he could take it to a pawn shop because they wouldn’t know how much it was worth.” Morlan let that hang in the air. Morlan, of course, knew what it was. He knew that it was priceless.

“Name?” Whitlock croaked.

“Ted Jones, but I don’t believe that was his real name,” Morlan said. “He said he bought it from an artist’s gathering downtown but he couldn’t afford to keep it. Apparently, he’d fallen on hard times.”

Whitlock said nothing. He stood and watched the burning, swirling scene of his own abduction, alive in paint as if it had just happened. Impassively his eyes traced the lone figure of himself as a much younger man, cowering in the face of what looked like hell. He’d been a father of two and married for ten years on that day, when he’d passed between two trees and found himself in the middle of the storm. It really had looked that way, hadn’t it? But he’d been all alone during that horrible moment; it was the one thing he’d thanked God for. No one could have seen it. He didn’t even dream about it. But the painting was real.

Morlan continued: “Mr. Jones said that a woman painted it. You can see her mark there.”

Whitlock nodded. He would have to make a deal with Morlan after all, it seemed.

“What are you asking for it?” Whitlock asked, clearing his throat and coming back to his senses a bit.

“Mr. Whitlock, you misunderstand me,” Morlan said carefully. “No one has any claim on this painting but you. No one has any right to it save for you, and perhaps the woman who painted it. To keep it from you would be a grave error and to sell it to you would be an offense.” An offense against what? The Wyrd, of course. Morlan didn’t even have to mention it. “I’d like to seal a promise so that you have a guarantee of my discretion; what you do for me in return is entirely up to you. If you don’t require such a contract, you can walk out of here with this painting right now and you won’t owe me one cent.”

“No,” Whitlock said. “I won’t do that to you. You’ll get something for your trouble. If you need a favor, just name it.”

“Very well,” Morlan said. “Let’s get this wrapped up, and then we’ll shake on it.”

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