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Book: The Bride's Curse - Bulgarian Gothic Ghost & Horror Stories by Rayne Hall

Book: The Bride's Curse - Bulgarian Gothic Ghost & Horror Stories by Rayne Hall

categories: Book, Bulgarian Stories, Gothic Fiction, Ghost Stories, Horror Stories, Short Stories, Dark Fantasy Fiction, Creep Stories, Short Story Collection, European Horror Stories, Spooky Short Stories, Stories for Halloween, Creepy Spooky Stories


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Rayne Hall

Author Rayne Hallabout this book: Excerpt from the book (from the story 'In the Gothic Chair')
Da-da-da-daaa, da-da-da-daa. The phone chimed with the insistence of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. Mila rubbed her aching neck, resenting the demand. The display showed an unknown number, and she debated ignoring it. But it might be an important prospect, one of the big retailers they'd worked so hard to hook.

She clicked the speaker icon and put a smile into her words. "Mila Todorova of Nature's Nosh. How may I help you?"

"This is the Cherkenzov Hospital in Veliko Tarnovo." A male voice, businesslike. "I'm calling about Desislav Todorov. You're listed as his next of kin."

"Sorry, you have the wrong Mila Todorova." Every minute counted in getting the email campaign launched, and now another wrong number had fractured her focus. "I'm not in Veliko Tarnovo, and I don't know a Desislav Todorov."

Then she remembered a distant cousin on her father's side who'd visited once or twice when she was a child, a third cousin once removed or something. "Oh, that Desislav Todorov."

The man at the other end of the line coughed. His silence oozed disapproval.

"I haven't seen him in over thirty years. We're only distantly related. He has to have closer kin than me."

Cousin Desislav had written to her when she was at university to offer condolences on her parents' deaths, and she had replied with a formal note of thanks, but that was the only communication between them.

"Mr Todorov has expressed a wish to see you." The man's voice sounded like he was talking through pursed lips. "It would do him good to get a visitor."

White metal gurneys, plastic curtains, bedpans. Mila swallowed. "I'm sorry, but I live in Sofia, and I can't take a day off work."

More coughing and throat-clearing. "Mr. Todorov's condition is deteriorating."

The man would smell of sickness and sweat and urine and cloying antiseptics. Mila loathed hospitals. The sight of a syringe could send her into a panic, and the ever-present sharp odours made her gag. She was definitely not the right person to volunteer for a compassionate visit.

"I'll think about it. Thanks for calling." She clicked off before the man could give her further censorious coughs.

Before she could return her focus to the computer, Luben wandered into the room. "What was that?"

"The hospital in Veliko Tarnovo. They want me to visit a patient of theirs - a distant cousin I haven't seen since I was a kid."

"Poor Mila. I know you hate hospitals." Standing behind her, he massaged her shoulder, his fingers gentle and firm. She felt some of the tension melt under his grip. "Do you have to go? We're have so much to do right now."

"I know." The gift hampers needed promoting for the Christmas season, and retailers persuaded for next year. "But he said this Desislav dying. His condition is deteriorating, is how he put it, and it seems I'm the only relative alive. I suppose this makes me his next of kin, technically."

Luben released her shoulders."This distant cousin could be rich and leave you something in his will." He chuckled. "What does he do for a living?"

She tried to remember. "I think he sells books, or maybe antiques. He was always borrowing money from my father,and my mum called him a scrounger, so he wasn't rich."

"Then watch it," Luben said. "If you accept the responsibility of next of kin, the hospital might try to make you pay his bills. I wouldn't go."

Grateful for Luben's validation, Mila returned her attention to the computer.

But the thought kept tapping like a woodpecker at her skull. What did this distant cousin want to see her for?

Maybe when the campaign for the organic gift hampers was complete and the workload eased, she would brace herself for a hospital visit and find out.

*



Two days later, Desislav Todorov was dead. The hospital notified her because she was listed as his next of kin. Poor man. Maybe she should have overcome her aversion to hospitals and paid a visit. He was probably all alone in that horrid place, and no one ever came to see him. At least, she could have sent him some flowers or something, instead of brushing off his request as coldly as she had done. Filled with self-loathing, she replayed that telephone conversation about her being next of kin. If only she could go back and change what happened, so that the old man wouldn't feel totally abandoned in his final days!

The following week, she received a formal letter informing her that she was Desislav Todorov's sole heir. In his will, he had left her his house and business in Veliko Tarnovo, and since she was his only relative, she could claim her inheritance immediately, without lengthy probate. The same mail brought a padded envelope containing a key, small but heavy and crusted with rust.

Mila swallowed through the thickness in her throat. "He made me his heir, and I didn't even visit him in hospital." He'd bequeathed everything to her, not knowing that she would callously let him down. "I should have at least visited once."

Luben rubbed her shoulders. "It's all right, sweet. Don't beat yourself up over it." Luben's fingers kneaded her neck, expertly calming. "He made choices in his life, probably preferred a solitary existence. It's not your responsibility." He continued massaging in silence. "I wonder how much that shop is worth. It's the building as well as the business, isn't it? In the Old Town of Veliko Tarnovo, and close to the centre, it should bring a good price, don't you think?"

"I don't know what to do," Mila confessed. "I can leave the funeral arrangements to the hospital. But about the building... I suppose I should look at it before I place it with an estate agent. But we're snowed under with work, with all the enquiries coming in, and the second segment of emails still to write ... " She lifted her arms in exasperation.

"I can hold the fort for a couple of days," Luben assured her. "This is important. Don't delay, there's a lot of money involved."

Her future husband had sound business instincts. The way his ethical gifts company turned a healthy profit and expanded fast was proof that he knew how to make money.

She picked up the key to her inheritance, and twisted it between her fingers.
*
Mila left for Veliko Tarnovo the next morning, following Luben's detailed directions. The sunlight was thin through the oppressive cloud cover, and the mist had not yet lifted. It was a bitter cold that settled deep in the bones - and the roads were slick. She parked curbside as near the old town as she could, and clambered out.

Mounds of snow lined the streets, and the cold air bit Mila's cheeks. She strode up a road flanked by classy souvenir shops and fashion boutiques, their window displays festooned with early tinsel and blinking fairy lights, and her pulse accelerated. This was a prime area for businesses. A shop in the vicinity of the famous Samovodska Charshiya street would catch many souvenir-browsing tourists and should bring a good price.

Alas, the shop's address was two turns from the desirable area. The cobbled road, carved into the hill side was narrow and steep, interspersed with stone steps, laborious to climb. Although picturesque with half-timbered buildings and overhanging upper storeys, it reeked of poverty and decay.

Wafts of white mist hovered above the cobblestones. Mounds of white lay heavily on the street lanterns and windowsills, and pedestrians had stirred the snow underfoot into grey mush.

Here was the shop. Koshtata Na Starite Knigi, the stained enamel sign proclaimed. The House of Old Books. Sheets of blue-painted plaster had fallen off, leaving sections of brickwork bare, and one of the windows was cracked, the jagged line running like lightning bolt from one corner to the other.

Mila inserted the key into the mortice lock and twisted. The door creaked on its hinges and whined inwards, hitting a dozen chinking goat bells on a rope. The place smelled of must, dust, coffee and cat pee.

She fumbled for the light switch. The button felt sticky to the touch. Several spotlights shot into action, illuminating corners with their sulphurous yellow. Bookshelves lined the walls from floor to ceiling. A display case held ceramics, vases and statuettes, mostly mass-produced kitsch, chipped and cracked, and a few hand-thrown bowls of the kind she had made in her first term at art college, before she'd acquired mastery.

Stacked cardboard boxes and crates with empty glass bottles cluttered the space between old furniture, leaving only small sections of stained green carpet. An armchair with torn upholstery supported a dust-dulled mirror and chandelier with stiffened pale drops of wax. On the wall, a big clock ticked noisily, its crooked hands still set to summer time.

She ran her finger along the edge of a wooden table: it came away thick with grey dust and crumbled plaster. This was not just the dust accumulated during the owner's absence, but the grime of years. Cousin Desislav had not taken care of his shop. She would need to give the place a good clean before she could get potential buyers to view.

Yet even under all that clutter and dirt, something about the place was homey and welcoming. Maybe it was all the books. Mila queezed between crates and past dusty mirrors to get to the bookcases.

She brushed a finger along the dusty tomes and tattered paperbacks. Lenin's The Development of Capitalism in Russia, an instruction manual for 1970 Moskwich cars, and The Lord of the Rings in Spanish.

Then her heart smiled in recognition . She pulled out a slender volume, the collection of children's poems by Asen Bosev and flicked through the yellowed pages with familiar drawings in orange and grey. She recalled long-ago days when her parents were alive, and her mother's gentle voice read to her about how the fly became an elephant.

A movement at the window reflected in the mirror. Not a passer-by, but a dark silhouette crouching outside the condensation-fogged window, peering in between an old typewriter and a cracked vase.
Mila set the book down and took a stride towards the window. The figure straightened and vanished.
Well, she couldn't afford to waste time if she wanted to get the property presentable by tomorrow, and she hadn't even explored the upstairs apartment yet. She clicked on another yellow-grimed switch to light the wooden staircase in the back part of the shop.

Spotlights flicked on, illuminating a big old chair, a wooden monstrosity in the Gothic style with spikes and spirals, carved with curlicues and twisted spires, the uprights on each side of the backrest curving like the push handles of a primitive wheelchair. It might have once suited a church or a medieval parlour, but it didn't look in the least comfortable. Yet it drew the Mila's gaze with a sinister allure.

It appeared to be in poor condition with stained and splintered wood gathering dust. Why had Deslislav trained the spotlights on it so they illuminated the space around it while casting the chair itself in hard shadow? A cardboard rider, pushed through a gap between two spiralling horizontal bars, proclaimed that it was 'for decoration purposes only, not for sale'. If this chair was so special, why not place it in the front part of the shop, where customers could view it on entering? Or in the window, for passers-by to see?

Not that it was beautiful, not to Mila's eyes. Yet something drew her and instead of ascending the stairs as she had planned, her feet led her in another direction, clambering across the clutter towards the chair.

Cold air brushed her cheeks and neck, and goosebumps prickled her spine. Was there a sudden draft in the room? She glanced at the entrance to make sure the door hadn't blown open. She needed to examine that chair, needed to find out what was special about this rickety piece of wood. Yes, there was something about it, but what that something was, she couldn't be sure. And yet with every step she took, the room seemed to grow colder, as if the chair itself repelled heat.

Mila curbed her flights of fancy. It was winter, the shop was unheated, and the chair stood in the coldest part of the room, so naturally, it felt chilly here. She placed a hand on the back. The wood felt smooth, and surprisingly warm.

What went through her at the contact felt half like a caress and half like an electric shock. It was enough to make her jerk her hand away, her startled breath pluming in the now-frigid air. This was strange, indeed, but in some ways it only added to the mystery. What would it be like to sit in it?

She had to try, just to see how it felt. A rush of adrenaline surged through her limbs as she turned around, backed up...

The instant the backs of her legs touched the seat, the front door opened, no doubt blown by a harsh wind. It banged against the wall, clanked the string of bells and let in more chilled air. She hurried across the room to close it, but not before it struck the wall again with enough force to make it rattle on its hinges. Swallowing hard, she drew it shut, but for all the intensity with which it had opened, she felt no wind outside.

And the place suddenly seemed warmer again. Was she imagining this?

The dilapidated throne was waiting, inviting her claim her realm, but she could not afford to dally. She had not even viewed the upstairs yet. She pulled herself free from the chair's lure.

The banistered stairs creaked and groaned under each step.

Halfway up the stairs, a cat blocked her way. It had the longwhite hair and fierce majestic manner ofGandalfthe wizard inThe Lord of the Rings declaring "You shall not pass!"

Mila crouched to let the cat know that she intended no threat, and held out her hand to allow a sniff. The cat looked at her from dull eyes, one pupil blue, one gooseberry-green. The different-coloured eyes were a rarity, but the dullness was alarming. Mila observed the matted fur, and a stink of flatulence. This was not a well cat.

Of course! The cat had been left to its own devices, locked up in the shop for how long - a month at least! Mila's heart contracted with pity. The poor thing hadn't been fed for ages, probably didn't have enough water to drink, its owner it's owner had disappeared, and it was trapped in the shop with no escape.

And it was Mila's fault, because she didn't give Cousin Desislav the chance to ask her to rescue the cat.

Mila hurried upstairs with Gandalf padding after her, found and filled a water bowl and placed it on the cracked floor tiles. Gandalf lapped eagerly.

The apartment stank - and small wonder. A cat litter tray was overflowing with dried lumps of faeces. The poor cat had obviously used what litter was available, then scratched the carpet next to it and defecated there. She disposed of the stinky content in a rubbish sack, cleaned out the container and filled it with fresh litter.

Gandalf immediately availed himself. After a small mewl of gratitude, he sat in the tray, and released what he'd held in for so long. Mila marvelled how a cat could hold in so much excrement. Soon she had to refill the tray with litter - and Gandalf was using it again.

Poor kitty. Alone here for the past month, with noone to provide its basic needs.

She pulled open the fridge, and found pack of sliced bread, with green mould spreading, and a net of tomatoes decomposing into a stinking mush. In a corner of the kitchen, surrounded by takeaway pizza boxes leant a sack of dry cat food, clawed open. The starving cat had helped himself.

Drip-drip-drip. The sink tap was leaking, and the washer would need to be replaced. At least, Gandalf had been able to lick a few drops of water to survive.

Guilt gnawed at her heart. "I'm sorry, old boy," she said into the space, addressing both the dead cousin and the living cat. "I didn't realise. It's my fault."

A gentle pressure on her shoulder felt like a confirming touch. But she was alone in the building. Or wasn't she?

"You're safe now," she assured the cat, scratching behind the white ears. When he finished drinking rubbed his head against her hand, asking for more caresses, and gave a soft purr.

On the kitchen counter, behind a further stack of pizza boxes, Mila found a cardboard box lined with towels, a cat bed for Gandalf. Close inspection revealed a mass of small, hard white grains. Flea eggs. The poor kitty was infested with fleas. She would have to take him to the vet to treat for fleas, and possibly dehydration and digestive problems.

She stuffed the parasite-riddled towels into the rubbish sack, and glanced at her watch. It was already four in the afternoon, and there was so much to do.

After a quick glance at the rest of the apartment, taking in the unmade bed, bare lightbulb and table groaning under the weight of books, paper and unwashed dishes, she got out her phone. With cold-stiffened fingers, she tapped the estate agent's number on her phone - Luben had identified the one with the best online reviews - and arranged for a visit for the next day. Her arms itched. Cat fleas didn't bite humans, or did they?

Now, back to work in the shop downstairs!

The place had a stove - one of those ancient cylindrical top-loaders.

The back door opened to a courtyard, cluttered with broken furniture, sacks of rubbish and a rusted bicycle frame. A crimson tarpaulin sheltered a stack of chopped logs.

In a carton of bent candles, she found a box of matches. After many tries, and a good many crumpled sheets of paper, she succeeded in getting a fire going. Flames cackled, and the stove smelled of burning dust.

But the place had been unheated for weeks, and the stone walls retained the cold. Only standing near the stove could she get warm, and she didn't have time for that.

Keeping her padded jacket on, she busied herself tidying and cleaning. There was so much to do to make the place even passingly presentable, and so little time. She tossed junk into big rubbish sacks, washed down surfaces, wiped dust, scraped chewing gum from the carpet, all the time willing herself to ignore the lure of the mysterious chair in the back corner.

From the top shelf, the cat watched her efforts, as if supervising a new domestic servant.

Mila fed more logs to the fire, but the shop didn't heat up. Having stood empty for weeks, its stone walls had stored the winter cold, and damp chills seeped through the window frames.

The door squealed open, chinking the goat bells and releasing a gust of cold air in to the shop.

Mila rose. "Sorry, the shop isn't open."

"Good afternoon."The man stomped the snow off his boots and strode in. Expensive boots - practical but shiny. A quilted jacket that oozed wealth, and chequered scarf, probably cashmere.

"The shop isn't open," Mila repeated. "I'm just here to- "

"You're the new proprietor?" He eyed her up and down, then his gaze travelled to the back of the shop. Four quick strides, and he reached the Gothic-carved chair. "I'll take this one."

"I'm sorry, but it's not for sale." Mila gestured to the folded cardboard rider on the seat: "Not for sale. For display purposes only."

"I can pay." He unbuttoned his jacket and pulled a wallet from the inner pocket. "Thirteen thousand leva, cash. I'll take it now."

Mila's mind reeled at the sum. "I-"

"Here's a deposit in cash," the man said, extracting a wad of banknotes. "There's no need to wrap the chair up; I'll take care of it myself."

Mila opened her mouth to reply, but the sound of a sudden crash made her whirl around. One of the porcelain dolls on the shelf in the back had fallen to the floor, shattering into a hundred pieces. Her heart still beating fast, Mila hurried to clean it up, feeling uneasy. As she swept up the pieces, she saw that the man hadn't budged.

"How much do you want?" He seemed ready to negotiate the price.

Mila's brows knitted together. "I'm sorry, Sir, but-"

The goat bells on the rope jingled again, and the door creaked open, revealing a second man. He leaned heavily on his cane as he shuffled into the shop, clearly favouring his left leg as his eyes pored over the shop's many curiosities. His winter jacket was faded in patches from once-rich crimson to washed-out lilac. Bags stood out like shadows under his eyes, and Mila could hear the wheezing of his breath from across the room.

Why were all these people suddenly arriving now? Had they been watching the empty shop, seen the lights on, and jumped into action?

"Looks like I got here just in time." The newcomer marched up to the chair, eyes flashing at the wealthy man. "This is my chair."

"I'm sorry." The first man gave him a thin smile. "Do I know-"

"You might as well put your wallet away," the second man told him in an a surprisingly assertive way. "I want my chair back."

"Now listen," began the first man, "What makes you think you have the right to-"

"I lent my chair to Desislav." the second man explained to Mila. "He told me I could come collect it at my earliest convenience." His smile was apologetic, as if he were aware this was all an imposition, but the smile didn't quite reach his dark eyes.

"That's absurd." Rich-Clothes hand still held out the wad of cash towards Mila. "We were just getting ready to close the deal. Weren't we, Ma'am?"

"The chair is mine." The second man's tone sharpened as he struggled to stand up to his full height. "I want it back. Now."

The first man looked at the newcomer as if he was a smear of mud on his expensive shoes. "Show the evidence for your claim."

They were within inches of each other now,staring each other down, eyes flashing, hands clenched into fists at their sides. They wouldn't come to blows over this, would they?

Mila swallowed. "I'm sorry, gentlemen." The men turned to look at her at the same time. She shrunk back under their threatening gazes.

She picked up the rag and feather duster. "I'm afraid I can't help either of you. You'll have to take this up with the new proprietor. I'm just here to clean the place."

The jaws dropped.

"You're not the proprietor?" the wealthy man snarled. "Then why did you waste my time?" He strode to the door, then spun back and tossed a business card on the counter. "Ask the proprietor to ring me, will you?"

The second man grabbed a pen and scribbled his number on the back of an old leaflet.

As soon as they were out of sight, Mila examined the chair. It was an ugly monstrosity in wood. With pointed arches and twisted spires like a Gothic cathedral, but without the harmony and grace of that architectural style. What was so special about that chair?

Visually repellent, it possessed an undeniable allure, beckoning to her from amidst the dust and decay.

Steeling herself, Mila returned to it and reached for the "Not for sale" sign. Perhaps she could take it home herself. It didn't exactly fit the style of their decor, but what harm could there be? It was technically hers now.

Once more the temperature dropped, and without warning something else crashed at the other end of the store.. A mechanical typewriter had tumbled to the floor from the display by the window. It's rusted key levers still rang into the silence.

How had this happened? A delicate doll was one thing, but typewriters were heavy, and that display table was sturdy. Mila pulled herself away from the chair and give the table an experimental shake. It didn't budge.

There was no way the typewriter could have fallen of its own account. Was the shop haunted?

Mila's throat felt tight. What if Desislav was haunting the shop to punish her?

Stress, she told herself. It was just stress. What she needed was a hot shower and sleep.

The Gothic chair called to her, promising a restful seat. Mila had to steel herself not to succumb to its lure. She grabbed her bag and turned the key in the lock - once, twice. Now the window gaped darkely, keeping the shop's secrets for another night.

*

After checking into her pre-booked hotel room, she stood under the shower and let the hot water wash away the tensions of the day. Tired, she stretched out on the bed. She wouldn't bother eating, she had no appetite. All she wanted was sleep. And one of Luben's massages.

Luben! She jerked to alertness. She'd forgotten to phone him!

His voice came through after two rings. "Mila! I'm so glad to hear from you. I was beginning to worry. Didn't we agree that you'd phone when you arrived at the shop?"

"I'm sorry, I forgot. It's all a bit much for me. I wish you could have come."

His voice softened. "I know. It's unfortunate that I had to leave you to deal with this alone, but Nature's Nosh is at a critical stage and I have to stay here." He sounded as if he was trying to convince himself. "The order from Kaufland has come in, and there's a serious enquiry from Italy... yes, in response to your email... You're a marketing star, Mila, and I really appreciate you."

Being appreciated felt good. It was one of the reasons why Mila loved this man. He appreciated her, and took care of everything. And his massages...

Her mind yearned for sleep, and at the same time whirled the day's events around, and all the while Luben talked about the Italian prospect. Mila struggled to give the issue the attention it demanded.

At last, he asked, "What's the shop like?"

"Run down, not much value as a going concern. But as far as I can tell, the building structure is solid, it just needs new windows and better heating. I've made an appointment with the estate agent. She's coming tomorrow afternoon to give me an appraisal."

"That's my girl, well done," he praised. "Best price the house for a quick sale. Even if you get less than the market value, it's better to take what you can get than to wait years for a buyer who may never come."

This advice made sense. Mila had seen many empty shops, boarded up and falling into disrepair. And Luben's business could do with the extra finance.

"Uh, Luben... there's a cat in the shop. It was locked in all the time, with practically no food or water or anything. A boy, white and fluffy, maybe a Turkish Angora, and so sweet. He has one blue eye and one green, and..."

"A cat?" Silence. Then, "Did you let it out?"

"He's in a bad state, after being locked up for over a month. He was hungry and thirsty, the litter tray needed changing. He doesn't look healthy at all, and it's very cold outside..."

"So you decided to take care of him." Luben laughed softly. "Oh, Mila you and your soft heart! Yes, you're right, feed the cat up while you're there. Take it to a vet to give it any shot it needs, so it will be strong for life in the streets. this winter."

"Yes, I'll do that." She hesitated. "Uh, Luben, I was wondering. Could we..."

"No, Mila," he said, his voice gentle and at the same time hard as steel. "You're not going to bring the cat here."

"Of course not," she replied meekly, although she had hoped he would suggest adopting the feline. He was right, of course. Their apartment in Sofia was no place for a cat. "Something else has happened, something weird."

She described the encounter with the two men who were claiming the weird old chair.

Luben whistled. "Thirteen thousand for a chair? This must be a valuable antique. Do you have a picture?"

"Just a moment, I'll text you a pic."

"It doesn't look like much to me," said Luben after a moment.

"It doesn't?" Mila asked. "I rather thought it was…" What? Nice? Hardly. Interesting? No, that wasn't the right word either. She cleared her throat and shook her head.

"Thirteen thousand? For that?" She could hear the wonder in Luben's voice. "And you didn't sell it to him?"

"Desislav left a 'Not for sale' sign on it. It must have been important to him. I can't just sell it, can I?"

Luben laughed. "Darling Mila, you're a sentimentalist. Something will have to be done with all that stuff anyway, right?" he reasoned. "And if he offered you thirteen thousand, it could be worth two, three times that much. More than the house, even."

There went the possibility of taking it home. "You think so?"

"Yes. This could be a goldmine, Mila. Think about what it could do for you. For us. That kind of money could be a game-changer for the business."

Mila hesitated. "I just wonder why Desislav didn't sell it then, if it's worth that much. He clearly could have used the money."

"Desislav was a bit of an odd one, though, wasn't he?" Luben reminded her. "You probably have to be, to run a shop like that. Either way, he doesn't have any use for that chair now, and you're the legal owner…"

"So what should I do?"

"I would take it to an appraiser," Luben counselled. "Find out what it's really worth. I'll check out antiques experts in Veliko Tarnovo, and find the one to ask. I'll text you the URL."

"Thank you." She knew she should be grateful for Luben's sensible advice, but no matter how much she tried, she was unable to shake a feeling of uncertainty.

"I miss you," Luben said.

"Miss you, too," she replied, but she was already sinking into the demands of sleep. Her mind conjured images of green-eyed cats, old books and Gothic chairs.


*

After gulping down a black coffee and gluten-free Nature's Nosh health bar, Mila hurried back to the shop She stuffed junk into heavy-duty rubble sacks: musty books, antique toys, out-of-date appliances, empty wine bottles, dog-eared picture postcards, posters with spoilt colours, paintings by clumsy hobbyists... She had to get rid of most of this before she could present the shop for sale.

In a box behind the counter, she found a stack of photos of Desislav. In most of them, he was holding a cat, petting a cat, playing with a cat, obviously a cat lover like herself. Several of the pictures featured a fluffy white cat - and it had to be Gandalf, because no other cat would have the same fluffy white coat and one gooseberry-green eye and one blue.

But something was odd. She frowned at the pictures, unable at first to identify what was bothering her.

Then she realised. It was not the cat that was wrong - it was Desislav. The Desislav in the pictures had aged - some featured a man his fifties while others showed a man at least ninety years old. Her skin tingled.

Cats didn't live forty years.

Could it be a different cat? Maybe Gandalf was a lookalike descendent of an earlier cat, with the same colouring, long hair tufts sticking out of the ears and elegant curving whiskers? But the weird eye-colour - the green left and blue right - would be a coincidence beyond all plausibility. The cat in the photo - in all photos - was Gandalf.

Either the cat was immortal, or Desislav had aged fast.

How old was Desislav really? She hadn't paid attention to the wad of documents she'd received as next of kin. She thought back to the time she'd him when she was eleven or twelve. The visitor had seemed old to her then, but at that age, all adults had seemed ancient. He was probably in his twenties then, which put him in his late fifties when he died. But in that last photo, with the papery skin lose on fleshless bones, he looked ninety or more.

Maybe his illness had ruined his health. What had he died of? She realised with a twang of guilt that she hadn't even bothered to enquire. A sick relative was in hospital asking for her - and she hadn't even asked what he was ill from! Remorse dropped like a heavy lump in her stomach.

She turned the pictures over and saw dates, in felt tip pen in an untidy hand.

They all were from this year. How had he aged forty years in under twelve months?

More than ever she wished she had visited this distant cousin in hospital, and given him a friendly moment during his terrifying illness and lonely last days.

"I'm sorry I let you down, Desislav. But I promise I won't let down your cat."

*
The veterinarian who checked Gandalf over assumed she had brought in stray from the street. He confirmed the flea infestation, observed that the cat was severely dehydrated, and suspected damage to the kidney and liver.

His clinic appeared well-equipped with a laboratory, but the sight of the technical apparatus and drips made Mila queasy. Eager to get back into the fresh air, she agreed to leave Gandalf for blood tests, intravenous drips and any treatment required, and pick him up in the early afternoon. Her mouth mouth went dry when she thought of the cost. But she would not begrudge the expense, because she owed a big moral debt to Desislav.

Now, time for a visit to the appraiser of antiques.

*

"Hmm." From behind his enormous spectacles, the antiques valuer squinted at the photos on Mila's mobile phone. She had tried to photograph the chair from all angles.

"You're right that it's an antique - Nineteenth Century, by the looks of it, in the Gothic Revival style. Gives me the shivers, actually. I can't really say why." His lips twitched side to side as he pondered. "But it's not in good condition. The splintering on the moulding - and here you can see where that leg was broken and been glued together, and not by an expert - and the whole thing was painted over at one time, and then the paint stripped off. Not worth much, I should say."

He handed her phone back. "Of course, I'd have to examine it in person to give a full assessment, but based on the photos... between two hundred leva and two hundred eighty."

Disappointment blended with relief. Mila had expected to hear that it was rare, valuable.

"A customer offered me thirteen thousand leva for it," she said. "So you don't think it's worth that much?"

"Thirteen thousand for that?" He ran a hand through his hair, and took the phone for another look. "No way. Even if it was in immaculate condition - with no damage, not marred by inexpert paint jobs - this kind of chair would auction for four thousand leva at the most."

Mila paid his small fee in cash and left. The mystery had deepened. Of course, the valuer might be mistaken, but it was a reputable firm, and he had no reason to lie.

The man who wanted to pay so much was obviously mentally ill. He probably swaggered around town making exorbitant offers everywhere. His purchases were probably not even legally valid. The mystery of the chair was no mystery at all, just a crazy man's delusion.

Of course, Luben would be disappointed. But Mila felt a sudden lightness of relief. She no longer had to bear the weight of this decision. The chair was no longer an item of value or significance. She could leave the chair in the shop, or take it home to the apartment, whatever took her fancy.


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