“I’m telling you,” Chloe said, “there’s something really weird going on.”
Mia clamped her phone tighter between her shoulder and her ear, the morning air burning cold in her lungs as she hurried down the crowded street.
“I have to get to work,” she mumbled, stuffing the last of her cereal bar into her mouth.
“Your concern is touching.”
Mia swallowed, swiping the crumbs from her mouth and checking her watch. Three minutes until she was officially late. She sped up, her scarf scratching itchy with sweat against her throat. “Look, I’ll come round tonight, okay?” she forced her voice to soften, forehead pinched tight. “We can talk about it then.”
“I think someone’s following me,” Chloe hissed.
“What do you mean someone’s following you? Who?”
“I don’t know,” she said.
“Well, what do they look like?”
“I don’t know, I haven’t seen them.”
“Then how do you know someone’s following you?” Mia asked. “Have they done anything?”
“No. I just-” Chloe’s voice strangled over a sob.
Mia’s stomach dropped.
Chloe’s life had always been a series of escalating dramas better suited to a soap opera than to its surprising reality. Really, it would have been weird if Chloe was having a perfectly normal week devoid of any earth-shattering revelations or strange coincidences. But Chloe usually took it in her stride.
Mia squeezed her eyes shut, trying to think. Chloe would drop everything if it was the other way round and Mia needed her help. She always had. One minute until she was officially late. “Tell me what happened from the beginning,” Mia said. She opened her eyes and kept walking.
“Just come over, please. I think I’m going mad!” Chloe’s voice cracked.
“What about Thomas?”
“I don’t want to bother him.”
“He’s your fiancé!”
Chloe’s silence stretched over the phone.
Echo Antiques loomed across the street, its building as old and grand as the miscellaneous items it stocked. Mia crossed over, checking her watch again.
She couldn’t lose this job, she couldn’t. It would be career suicide.
“I’ll come round the second the shop closes, okay?” she said. “But I really have to go now. Just – just breathe. Everything’s going to be fine. Promise. Love you.” She hung up with a cold twist of guilt and shoved her phone into her bag before Chloe could respond, hurrying to let herself into the antiques store while patting down her short mop of windswept red hair.
“You’re late,” Adelaide said without looking up from the gold ring in her hand. She held it up to the pale sunlight with narrowed eyes as Mia wilted.
“I’m sorry! The bus was full.”
“Then you should have left the house earlier.”
Mia’s heart pounded against her ribcage, and she appraised Adelaide with the same focus as Adelaide examined the ring. Her boss seemed to be in a good mood today.
“I’ll make it up to you,” Mia said, the tension flooding out of her shoulders. It was only a few minutes, she wasn’t a failure.
“Of course you will. The new shipment arrived earlier, you need to take stock. I’ve written out a list of what should be there.”
Mia weaved her way around a precariously balanced hand painted Japanese tea set and squeezed past an Edwardian Mahogany dressing table to get to the back room.
“Not now,” Adelaide said. “I need you at the counter. You can do it after the shop closes.”
“But I-” Mia stopped herself as Adelaide’s stare stabbed through her.
“Did you have something better to be doing other than your job? Because if you don’t want to find the time to be here-”
“No! It’s fine. Tonight is fine, I had no plans.” Mia tried her best smile.
“Then that’s settled, dear,” Adelaide tossed a perfect copy of Mia’s smile back at her and turned her attention back to the ring.
Adelaide was known for her genius in the field. She’d made her fortune writing several successful books drawing wider audiences to the fading art of antiquing, but within the freshly-revived industry she was most admired for her uncanny ability to find rare items. Even now, crow-faced with old age, as tough as an over-worked pastry and squinting blinder by the minute behind ostentatious purple glasses, everyone knew Adelaide had the unmatched eye for antiques. Working for her was a dream post-graduate job.
Mia just wished she was allowed to work with the antiques more than the till.
The bell at the front door barely ceased ringing all morning as customers streamed in and out of the cramped labyrinth of a shop to browse or simply speak with Adelaide and have their life’s treasures valued. There was no time to even skim through the new items still boxed at the back of the store.
A stooped old man with a face like a basset hound spent ten minutes interrogating her about an 18th Century snuff box, before leaving without buying it.
What was she going to tell Chloe? She could still go around when she finished taking stock and organizing their new acquisitions…though who even knew how long that would take. It could be half an hour or it could be three hours depending on Adelaide’s list. At least it was with the actual antiques for once, she was getting off lightly really. Any other day she would have loved the task.
Chloe had sobbed.
Maybe it was pre-wedding nerves, but Chloe wasn’t that easily shaken. Someone had scratched her eyeball with a ruler when they were seven and she hadn’t even started sniffling, the girl had nerves strung more resilient than diamond.
What if she was truly in danger this time?
The Japanese tea set went for £395.00.
Mia’s stomach knotted and she shook her head, struggling to focus. There were no texts from Chloe when she checked her phone, so how bad could it really be?
On the other hand, Chloe could have been kidnapped and brutally murdered by an apparent stalker. Maybe she should have gone over, just to be sure. If something happened now it would be her fault. She’d known something was wrong and done nothing, what type of sister did that? She could get another job, not another twin. She didn’t want another job.
Mia’s throat clenched tight. She texted Thomas.
You should talk to Chloe, she seems more stressed out than normal. Is everything okay?
“You don’t recognize me, do you?” someone asked.
Mia’s head snapped up, ready to protest that she hadn’t been texting on the job or that it was a family emergency. The words shrivelled up as she registered his question.
The man couldn’t have been much older than Mia herself, and might have been handsome if he didn’t have a peculiar washed out quality to his face – as though his features had been erased and redrawn by an artist too many times to hide the smudge marks. Everything about him seemed pencil drawn, from his dark hair to the off-white colour of his skin.
“I’m sorry sir?” Mia wracked her brains, trying to place where she was supposed to know him from. They’d never met before, she was sure of it. She’d recognize a face like his. Maybe he thought she was Chloe. A bitter taste flooded onto her tongue and burned the back of her throat at the thought. With her new haircut they didn’t even look similar anymore! “I’m sorry,” she said again, anyway. “I haven’t been working here very long. What can I help you with?”
Her hand fluttered over her meticulously straightened bob.
“Fucking distortions,” he muttered.
“Excuse me?” Mia’s spine stiffened and she stood taller, chin jutting up. Had she heard him right? Distortions?
He shook his head. “Nothing, don’t worry about it.”
Her hand dropped to her side. She glanced over at Adelaide, unease prickling in the back of her throat. If he didn’t think she was Chloe, why did he think they’d know each other?
Adelaide didn’t seem to have noticed the man yet, which was rather unusual for her, even if she was busy discussing some old coins with a tall spindly woman who looked like she’d been spun from blown glass. Fragile, translucently pale, her beaded jewels and creaking bones clinked among every other old thing in the room.
Mia looked back to the man.
He shifted on his feet, hunched in on himself, battered leather jacket tugged low over a ratty looking t-shirt. He didn’t even look like he could afford anything in the shop.
“Can I help you with something?” she asked, again. “You seemed to expect me to know you? What was your name?” she tried to fish. “I’m sorry, I’m just terrible with faces.” She tried for a smile too, but even with long hours of customer service practice, it still hung limp and unconvincing on her mouth.
“Do you have any mirrors here?” he asked.
She pointed to the heavy, gold-framed mirror propped up in the corner. “It’s an Original French-”
“Aside from that one,” he said. He didn’t as much as glance at it.
Mia’s teeth gritted. “Are you looking for something specific?”
“Maybe you have some in the back you could let me take a look at?”
“Customers aren’t allowed in the back I’m afraid,” she said. “But I can take a look for you, sir.”
“It’s Blaise, actually. Seeing as you asked.” He studied her, eyes raking hungrily for an answer or reaction he didn’t seem to find. “And it really would be quicker if I could just take a look.” He leaned in with a charming smile that felt as fake as her own. “I’d make it up to you.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Blaise,” she said. Her smiled edged tighter like barbed wire. “But if you tell me what you’re looking for, I’d be happy to assist in any way possible.”
“Show me the back room,” he said. He gripped her wrist tight and squeezed.
Pain throbbed up Mia’s arm.
Adelaide finally noticed. Mia had thought before that Adelaide could smell mistakes and pinpoint difficult customers the same way she could sniff out the only valuable artefact in an entire flea market full of beautiful junk. Normally, it meant Mia panicked over the smallest smudge on the stock. Now, she melted with relief.
“Is there something we can help-” Adelaide stopped when she saw Blaise’s face. Her expression shuttered. “Get out of my shop!”
He dropped Mia’s wrist in a flash.
The entire store stilled, seeming to draw in a breath.
Mia froze – Adelaide never raised her voice with customers. Her menace was a passive aggressive one, and mainly an intolerance of anyone showing less passion towards her trade than she did.
Adelaide’s eyes flicked to Mia’s wrist, before fixing on the man again.
Blaise’s expression slid into a more wary one, and he raised his hands above his head in a placating gesture. “Addy, with all due respect-”
“- with all due respect,” Adelaide’s voice chilled. “I don’t want your kind here. Get. Out.”
With his hands in the air, Blaise’s battered jacket rose with him. Several knives and a large hammer hung from his belt.
“Addy, be reasonable,” he begun.
A choked noise left her throat without permission.
Blaise glanced over at her, only to catch her staring at the weapons strapped to his side. His hands jerked down again, tugging the jacket back into place. His jaw clenched, fingers flexing at his sides. A flush spread across his pale cheek.
“I’ll call the police,” Adelaide said. “Step away from my assistant.”
For a moment, it seemed like Blaise was about to say something further, before he shook his head and walked out with a final glance at them both.
A suffocating silence settled in his wake. The customers seemed to forget to turn back to the nearest object and pretend they hadn’t been listening.
Adelaide closed her eyes, lips pursed against the scene of it all. “Watch the shop while I’m out, Miss Grimshire. Call the police if he comes back and don’t engage him.”
“Why would I want to engage him? Who is he?” Mia asked, leaning forwards over the counter again. It seemed wrong to speak too loudly in the hush. “He seemed to think I’d recognize him.”
Adelaide vanished into the backrooms in a puff of Coco Mademoiselle.
Mia’s unease grew.
Adelaide disappeared out of the backrooms and into the cobbled city streets. Adelaide never left the shop for longer than an hour – she was there before Mia arrived and still there when she left. She certainly never left during shop hours, if there were errands to be run she sent Mia out.
She was gone the rest of the day.
Who was Blaise? And how could Mia beg permission to leave to check on Chloe if there was no one to ask?
She scanned her phone messages, foot twitching with impatience. There was still nothing from Chloe, no response to the text she’d ended up sending either. It wasn’t like her. The knot in Mia’s stomach tightened further, and her palms stuck clammy with sweat. She had to wipe them on her tights and slip on gloves to even look at the collection of Victorian brooches she’d begun sorting through.
She’d always loved old things, found them reassuring in their survival across the ages, fascinating in the memories they must hold and the stories they could tell if objects could speak. In some ways they did, through dulled gleams and chips and dents and the scratches made by hands before hers. Someone else must have loved this brooch fiercely once – butterfly shaped, emerald and diamond in excellent condition — and normally that would calm her.
Normally, Chloe didn’t cry.
Mia bit her lip, leaning over to scan the empty shop. Adelaide still wasn’t back. Maybe…maybe she could go and check on Chloe and then return before Adelaide knew she was gone. Then she’d be able to get the work done properly without clammy hands and a lurching stomach distracting her.
The butterfly brooch would have probably been a courtship token, considering its extravagance. Thomas had given Chloe a Sapphire studded engagement ring to match her eyes. He’d asked Mia’s advice first, wanting to get something special, unique.
Mia hesitated a few minutes longer, before boxing everything up and standing. She left the sweat-slick rubber gloves crumpled on top one of the cardboard boxes, hands trembling.
Adelaide would be furious. Chloe was probably completely fine. But what if she wasn’t?
The memory of Chloe’s hitched sobs tugged at her again.
Mia locked up behind her and rushed down the street.
She knocked on the door of Chloe and Thomas’s flat, jittering on her feet unable to hold still. It was a plain white-washed building, squashed in on either side by many other plain, identical buildings. There was no sign of a forced entry. She should break down the door anyway. Chloe was being murdered right this second and couldn’t answer. Mia stepped back, braced herself and –
Chloe answered, beaming at her. “How was work? I made too much spaghetti squash, do you want some?” Tomato sauce, not blood, smudged along her freckled cheek.
“Spaghetti…?” Mia’s stared, struck speechless for a long moment. “You phoned me this morning practically crying? Begged me to come over?”
Chloe’s head tilted, long scarlet curls spilling over one shoulder. “No, I didn’t.”
“Yeah, you did.” The urge to punch something itched up Mia’s fingers and she exhaled a breath to steady herself. Then drew in a few more breaths because the first didn’t work well enough. “You said someone was following you.”
Chloe had the audacity to look at her as if she was the live grenade in the family.
“Is this a fucking joke?” Mia asked, squaring her shoulders for battle.
“What, no? What are you even talking about?” Chloe’s shoulders squared in turn, eyes wide.
“You phoned me this morning,” Mia said.
“Are you feeling alright?” Chloe’s face softened.
“This isn’t funny.”
“I’m not joking.”
Mia licked her dry lips, mind racing. “Show me your phone.” That would put an end to this nonsense and she could get back to the store and pretend she didn’t work herself up over nothing like she always did. Chloe would laugh if she knew. Chloe was perfectly capable of defending herself, anyway, right?
“I don’t have it,” Chloe said.
“What do you mean you don’t have it?”
“I lost it this morning,” Chloe said. “Stop looking at me like that, you’re starting to freak me out. Look, come in. You’re white as sheet. Have some spaghetti.”
“I have to get back to work.” Maybe she hadn’t gotten enough sleep, maybe it was a stress reaction. Maybe she was the one going crazy – that would make a nice change at Christmas dinner.
Bile clawed up her throat.
Chloe lunged forward to grab her arm, watching her closely. “Tell me what happened.”
Mia hesitated. “You phoned me this morning crying, telling me someone was following you,” she said. “Do you really have no memory of that?”
“I never phoned you,” Chloe said. “Are you sure it was me?”
“We had a whole conversation!” She hadn’t been mistaken, it had been Chloe. It had to be Chloe, she wouldn’t mistake her own sister’s voice. Her own voice. Who else could it possibly be? A different type of panic gnawed on Mia insides now, especially as Chloe continued to look at her like she was going mad. “I need to get back to work.” She felt cold.
“I must have just got the wrong number or something. It’s fine.”
“Is it?” Chloe’s expression was still so maddeningly soft, like Mia had ‘handle with care’ stamped on her forehead. “Look, come in. It would really help me out with the spaghetti. Tom will be home soon, we’ll have some tea-”
Mia’s phone rang.
She closed her eyes for a second when Adelaide’s name flashed on the screen, and considered not picking up. She picked up.
“The shop cannot be left unattended,” Adelaide said.
Mia’s stomach churned. “I’m sorry! I had a family-”
“The shop must never be left unattended.”
“I’m on my way, I just-”
“Don’t go near the mirrors.”
Her boss hung up.
Mia’s heart jumped into her throat. She wasn’t losing her job over this, she couldn’t.
Chloe stared at her, that stupid tomato sauce still on her cheek.
Mia turned away, digging her nails into her palm. She felt sick. “I need to get to work.”
The store front was shattered when she arrived.