He slipped in through the shop door so quietly that the bell on the handle scarcely jingled, then padded past the front displays on cat’s paws, 'til he reached the case where the pocket watches were kept. That’s where he stopped, dark head bent, fingertips pressed against the glass.
Ms. Flannigan did not speak to him, just watched him over the tops of her spectacles. She normally didn’t permit children in the shop, and certainly never unaccompanied children. Still, there was something about this young boy’s delighted curiosity that stopped her mouth like a cork in a wine bottle. She simply couldn’t tell him to leave.
Today she cleared her throat. It was the closest she could come to uttering anything. But the boy did not look up from the case.
Is he looking at one watch in particular? She fingered the cameo brooch attached to her collar as she peered around the African violet pots next to the register to get a closer look.
Yes, his gaze was set.
She couldn’t tell on which item exactly, not from this vantage point, but it appeared to be the large silver watch in the second row, the one with the elaborate inscription. It was her favorite, actually. She had displayed it with the case open so that interested customers could read the words, etched in an elegant script:
To my son, Evander Jedidiah Oliver, who in his person fulfills his father’s every fond wish.
September 29, 1867.
The script was what made the pocket watch so unusual, and so valuable. The watch itself was worth over forty dollars, the price written in Sherri’s sloping hand on a white tag hanging from the chain.
The boy continued to stare, and then the bell jingled.
Ms. Flannigan lifted her head. When she saw who it was, she smoothed her tightly coiffed hair, and stood up.
“Hello, Jeremy,” she said, stretching her mouth into a smile.
“Hello, Sherri!” Jeremy Coslow’s voice boomed from beneath his salt-and-pepper moustache. “Keeping busy, I see.” He swept past the watch display, his cape billowing out behind him. The edge fluttered against the boy’s thin shoulder.
“Oh, just the little customer today,” Ms. Flannigan said, nodding in the child’s direction.
The boy looked up then, eyes black as pits of pitch and just as deep. They burned her with their coldness.
“Ah, well,” said Jeremy Coslow, setting two packages wrapped in brown paper on the counter. “I brought these things from Mother, as promised. Look them over at your leisure. I’m in no hurry to be on my way.”
“Maybe you’d like to pull up a stool,” Ms. Flannigan said. “I’ll put the kettle on for tea.”
“Sounds lovely,” said Mr. Coslow.
Ms. Flannigan was about to turn away, to hurry up the rickety back stairs to her flat to start the kettle, when she happened to look back. She stopped with a gasp.
Mr. Coslow’s light blue eyes widened. “Everything all right, my dear?”
“The boy,” stammered Ms. Flannigan. “Did you see him go? Is he still in the store somewhere?”
“Yes, that little dark haired boy looking at the watch display when you came in.”
Mr. Coslow shook his head. “I’m not sure I saw anyone when I came in.”
“But I mentioned the little customer,” she said. “Didn’t you see him?”
“I didn’t know what you meant,” he said. “I assumed it was someone who’d already been and gone.”
“But he was standing right—”
“Now, now, Sherri,” Mr. Coslow said. He reached across the counter and pressed her hand. His fingers were warm. “He probably just slipped out. Don’t alarm yourself.”
But Ms. Flannigan couldn’t help herself. She stepped around the counter to the pocket watch display and leaned over to inspect the glass. Yes, ten finger smudges just above the silver watch. And she’d wiped the glass only that morning.
“Yes, I suppose he slipped out when I wasn’t looking,” she said. “Still— You didn’t see him? You’re sure?”
Mr. Coslow’s brow crinkled. “Now, now, Miss Sherri,” he said gently. “How about that tea you promised, eh?”
Thank you to Sherri for her inspirational words elegant, curiosity and delight. This was a fun one to write, and as this is story number thirty-two, I only have twenty more to go before January!