Entertainingly Evil


The young woman behind the counter at the second hand shop looked up when I came in. Her eyes missed the shadow sitting on my shoulder, but marked the good quality of my coat, my handbag, my gloves.

“Hi, I’m Jenny, can I help you?” she said. She was pretty, with jet black hair and silver earrings. The shadow fluttered, and a feather soft chill touched my cheek. Again, the girl saw nothing.

“I’m looking for a matryoshka doll,” I said. “A little bird told me I might find her here.”

“Dolls are in the back.” Jenny led me through a curtained doorway. She took two porcelain dolls from a corner shelf, palming the price tags. “These are the nicest we have—antiques.”

I pretended not to have noticed. I let my gaze wander over the imitation Victorian dolls and around the room. Jenny was alone. Good. I saw no video cameras. Even better. If Jenny preferred to leave no record of her dealings, that suited me very well. It would simplify the task of collecting. “I’m looking for a matryoshka,” I said. “You might call it a babushka or Russian nesting dolls—one inside the other.”

“That’s all? I’m sure I can find you something nicer, but I think I do have a Russian doll.” Jenny moved a box out of the way, and opened a toy chest. She held up a brightly painted wooden doll, twisting it open to reveal the smaller doll inside. “This is what you want, right?”

“Not this trifle! I am very particular.” I grasped her arm. This must be the right place. My source was very specific. Was this girl deceiving me—hiding a treasure that she could not possibly appreciate? Trying to pawn me off with this ridiculous toy?

“Okay, um let’s just calm down,” said Jenny, shifting out of my grasp. Her eyes flicked to my shoulder. She hesitated, took a step backward. “Ma’am, maybe you should go.”

I stared at her for a long moment. The shadow flitted across the room and settled onto the box that Jenny had moved. I had assumed too much. This girl knew nothing. I softened my gaze. I must not appear too strong. Better to appeal to her acquisitive nature, before other collectors arrived and I lost my advantage. “Ah, I have come so far, and would pay top dollar.” I sighed. “The doll would have been in Anna’s estate. She lived nearby and I was told her things were sent here. I came as quickly as I could.”

“Oh, the estate sale,” said Jenny, brightening. “I haven’t unpacked that yet.” She went to the box. She brushed off the top and the shadow slid off. She yanked at the tape, then fished a key out of her pocket. She slit the tape with the key and carefully opened the cardboard flaps. She lifted out a coat and a straw hat, revealing the matryoshka. The colors in the doll’s scarf and dress had faded along with her rosy cheeks, but the thin black lines that sketched her features remained distinct. My pulse quickened at the find—very rare, very rare indeed. I was tempted to grab the doll, but that would not be wise. Jenny, beautiful Jenny must do this.

“It must be valuable—an antique.” A sly smile graced Jenny’s face.

“Let me give you something for your trouble.” I come prepared for such occasions. I took a pair of golden pendant earrings out of my purse. Jenny’s eyes glinted, appraising.

“Russian, circa 1910,” I said. “Go ahead, wear them. They’re yours.”

Jenny’s nimble fingers slipped the silver out of her ears and fastened the gold in place. I held up a compact for her to admire the effect. My heart leapt with the fierce joy of the hunt, with an almost physical need to close in, to collect. “I will buy the doll now. How much?”

“Five thousand dollars.”

“One thousand.” I opened my wallet and counted out ten hundred-dollar bills. Jenny gazed, enraptured, at the small pile of cash. She would be mine, all mine. “Jenny, dear, one last thing. Would you mind opening the doll? I want to see the whole set.”

“No problem.” Jenny tore her eyes away from the money. She took out the doll and gave it a twist. The lines of the doll’s mouth curved up in a sly smile. An answering smile crept across my face. The doll’s small, wooden hands clamped tightly onto the palm of Jenny’s hand. “Ow, a splinter.” Jenny tugged. “It’s stuck. Help me get it off.”

“Why would I want to do that?”

“What? Oh, forget it. I’ll do it myself, but if anything happens to the doll, remember that it’s yours. You already paid for it.”

“Naturally,” I said.

Jenny grabbed the key and tried to pry off the doll’s grip. As she bent closer, the doll’s mouth opened wide, impossibly wide and elastic. Jenny dropped the key. I watched, enraptured as the scene unfolded before me. Then with a faint click, Jenny was gone, and the wooden doll rested on the floor. The matryoshka smiled, her cheeks rosy, her lips red, her scarf bright. The shadow flitted toward her and a small, black bird settled into the crook of her arm.

I put away my money. I pocketed the key and silver earrings to save as cherished mementos of this perfect day. I picked up the doll set with my gloved hands, opening each and placing them in a row on the counter. A set of six raven-haired beauties with gold at their ears. “Ah,” I said to the doll fondly. “I shall collect you and you shall be free to collect as you please, but not from me, yes?” An excellent addition to my collection. And all for the price of a pair of cheap earrings.

Bethany Gray writes stories about things just below the surface of your life that you can almost see out of the corner of your eye. Gray lives in Silicon Valley, where she also writes about passive-aggressive wireless equipment that wants you to think it’s your fault. But it’s totally not.

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