Antiquities and Tangibles by Tim Pratt

The bell above the door to Martin Grinde’s shop tinkled a chime of surpassing beauty as a young woman pushed her way in. The door had the words “Antiquities and Tangibles” written in flaking gold-and-black letters on the frosted glass, but Mr. Grinde thought of it merely and eternally as “my shop.”

The woman’s hair was the color of wet beach sand, her coat the color of wet cement, and her forehead a relief map of furrows, face so scrunched in some effort or anxiety that it was impossible for Grinde to tell if she were pretty or ugly or plain.

“Welcome to my shop,” Mr. Grinde said as the woman looked around the press of overflowing shelves, racks, tables, and cubbyholes. Her face smoothed out and she even smiled briefly—she’d seen the Mirror of Jade, he suspected, which gave you a fleeting glimpse of your own best face—and that was answered, then: she was plain, but a rather determined-looking sort of plain.

She approached the counter—which was really a glass display case containing various metal-and-glass automata in the shape of birds, milkmaids, elephants, and less realistic things—crossed her arms, and stared at him for a moment. For his part, Mr. Grinde gave her the same faintly encouraging smile he gave everyone who walked into his shop—not that many did. The light outside the windows was harsh, the sort of light he associated with desert places, and it was probably hot out there, wherever it was, but it was very cool inside; the shift in temperature might explain why she shivered, though it could have equally been due to other factors entirely.

Some people needed more encouragement than an encouraging smile. “What can I do for you today?” Mr. Grinde asked.

“I was given this address.” Her voice was slow, deliberate, thoughtful, as if she were reciting something she’d committed to memory a long time ago but hadn’t had occasion to vocalize since. Her accent was American, he thought, or perhaps Canadian—the distinction was too fine for his unpracticed ear to discern. “I was sent here and told to pick out a present for myself.”

Mr. Grinde clucked his tongue. “Imprecision. You can choose a gift for yourself, but you cannot choose a present—the reason is evident in the word itself. A present is a gift that is presented to you by the giver. A gift may be sent through the mail, or arranged through an intermediary—” he touched his own chest with his hand, modestly—“but a present can only be given in person.”

She shrugged. “I’m just telling you what I was told. Aren’t you lecturing the wrong person?”

“I suppose I am. Forgive me. I tend to… Well. You’ve come for a gift, then.”

“Do you need some proof that I’m, ah, entitled? I wasn’t given a gift certificate, or anything.”

“It’s all taken care of,” Mr. Grinde murmured. Her presence here was proof enough. “You need only tell me what you desire, and—if my inventory can provide it—it’s yours.”

“All right.” She uncrossed her arms, thought better of it, crossed them again, looked at him defiantly, and said, “Give me happiness.”

Mr. Grinde looked at the high vaulted ceiling for a moment, hummed a few bars of an ancient Etruscan marching song, and then nodded a few times, briskly. “What’s your name?”

“Why do you want to know?” Flinty, now, and her face all furrows again.

“I keep records, of course. Of all my customers.”

“Oh. My name is Eunice. Stuart.”

“An old-fashioned name, in these times.”

“Most people call me Eunie.”

“I see. You ask for happiness, Ms. Stuart. Certainly, that’s what everyone wants—Aristotle said happiness is the ultimate goal of all people, and that the desire for wealth and fame and power are all just paths to happiness. And yet…happiness…it’s a bit abstract, isn’t it? As the front door says, I deal in antiquities and tangibles. Which is not to say I can’t cope with more aspirational requests—if you asked for the aforementioned wealth or power, or for youth, or beauty, or inspiration, I have items that can grant all those wishes. But happiness… Can you be a bit more specific? Can you tell me what would make you happy?”

She sighed. “If I knew that… Is there, I don’t know, a catalog or something?”

“I am in the midst of making a complete inventory, but it’s a long way from being finished, I’m afraid, and in the meantime, the shop is even more disordered than usual. But if you can give me some guidance…”

“I don’t… Listen. My life has been hard. I won’t bore you with the details, but I left home as soon as I could, and tried to make it on my own, but I’ve just been scraping along. Every day I worry about money, and my apartment is too small, and I couldn’t afford to eat in the restaurant where I work if not for the free meals, and it’s not even that fancy a restaurant… Is happiness the absence of worry? That seems like a good place to start.”

“You’d like a life free of financial difficulties, then. That I can easily offer.” He came around the counter and walked to a wall of many square cubbyholes, all about 18 inches across, which held various objects that were best kept separate from one another, lest there be bad interaction. Ms. Stuart followed, peering into the recesses, and he knew what she saw: One cubby held a wrinkled, mummified monkey’s paw; another a milky-blue glass bottle with a dark shape moving inside; another a broken goat’s horn incongruously spilling forth fruit and flowers. Any of those would serve to grant her wish, but all had drawbacks, and he had something more elegant and direct in mind. Mr. Grinde reached into a cubbyhole at chest height and drew out a small dark brown leather coinpurse held shut with a drawstring. “There you are,” he said, handing it over. “Wealth inexhaustible.”

She frowned, hefting the bag, which didn’t weigh much, he knew—it felt as if it contained only two or three coins at most. “How does it work?”

“Reach inside. Remove money. It never runs out. Quite simple, really.”

“Huh. Is it, I mean…legal tender? It’s not ancient doubloons or something, is it?”

“Try and see.”

She prised open the mouth of the bag with her fingers—her nails were clipped sensibly short, but were well maintained, not bitten or cracked; he approved—and shook it out over her hand. A single small coin landed on her palm, showing the face of a rather homely-looking woman in profile, surrounded by stars, with the word “Liberty” written on her crown and a date, 1913, at the bottom. “What’s this, then?”

Mr. Grinde leaned forward, peered at the coin, and grunted. “1913 Liberty Nickel. Only five are known to exist. If one were ever found in perfect condition, it would be worth, oh, twenty million dollars? This one’s rather worn, though, showing its age, so it’s only worth, at a guess, six million, perhaps a bit less, or perhaps more to the right collector. I suggest you find a reputable numismatist and say you found the coin in a trunk in your grandmother’s attic, or something similar. You’ll lose a bit in auction fees, and half of whatever’s left when you pay taxes—please, pay your taxes, you’ll find wealth is little comfort in prison—but it should be enough to make you comfortable. And, of course, if the money ever runs out, you still have the purse.”

She stared at the coin as if trying to bore a hole through it by vision alone. “And, what, this bag will just keep dispensing magical nickels?”

“I doubt it. Their rarity is what makes them valuable—a slew of them on the market would devalue the whole bunch. The bag will dispense other coins, I’m sure. You may wish to hire a discreet lawyer with your first funds, to handle any future sales, lest you attract suspicion. But all those details can be left to you, of course.”

“Millions,” she breathed. “What would I even do with all that money?”

The question was asked to the air, to herself, to the future, but he answered anyway: “Why not just enjoy yourself?”

* * *

At a guess, it was only a year or two later; there were calendars in the shop, or at least things that charted the movements of celestial bodies, but Mr. Grinde didn’t pay them much attention, keeping himself busy with his never-ending inventory. Still, he’d had no customers in the interim, and he usually saw four or five people per decade, so based on averages, it was probably less than two years before she came back.

The shop door opened into a flash of sunlight, and let in a whiff of sea air that made him faintly nostalgic, in that way you can get, sometimes, for a past you never even had, but just read about in a work of fiction. The sound of waves crashing entered, too, but they didn’t drown out the unspeakably clear voice of the bell that rang as the door swung wide.

Mr. Grinde suppressed a frown. Repeat business was not unheard of, but it was certainly rare, and worst of

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