Always in the Market

by Charlie Kirby

If you saw my office from the street, you probably wouldn't look at it twice. Well you might if you're in the market to buy a nice house or rent an apartment, but otherwise you would probably walk right by. The reality is that I do rent apartments and sell houses, but I also handle places for very special clients.

I'd been working at a dead end job for nearly fifteen years when I was told my services would no longer be needed and pushed out the door without even a stapler or tape dispenser to call my own. That was disquieting. I'd always figured you could count on things as long as you played by the rules. You know what I mean, show up on time, don't go home early, do your work, act like you care. I thought that's what a good employee Did.. Well, not so much when the boss needs to find a job for his kid and yours is the one the kid wants.

So, I was sitting and looking at the paper that I had borrowed from Old Widow Nelson's stoop—I always put it back, honest. There was this big ad about learning the exciting career of real estate. Well, not exactly what I thought about when imagining exciting, but what the hell? A girl has to eat. So I enrolled and, surprise of all surprises, I was pretty good at i.

I did a couple of years in a local real estate place and then struck out on my own. It was dumb I know, but somehow, I did enough to survive. Granted I had to let go of my apartment and set up a cot and a hot plate in back of my teeny tiny store front, but that was okay. More than that, I was okay.

Then one day, a few years ago, my life changed and with it, my fortune. It was one of those late spring days that you think will just melt into summer and then surprises you with a blast of winter. It had been all sunny and lovely out at lunch. I ate it on a bench in the park and then noticed some dark clouds moving in. I've lived in the city long enough to know what that means and high tailed it back to my office. A few minutes later, the rain started, great huge drops, and the wind kicked up and rattled my windows as it passed.

This old guy ducked inside. He was drenched and looked as bedraggled as a lost puppy. Without saying a word I ran into the back and grabbed a towel for him.

"Here, you look like you can use this." I held it out and smiled. My mom always told me that a helping hand and a smile went a long way and was never misspent.

"Thank you." He had a soft British accent and the sweetest smile, for an old guy I mean. "I've passed by this place many times and never stopped in. I'm Tom Kelly."

"Well, Mr. Kelly, I'm Wendy Riddles and today is your lucky day. What sort of house are you looking for?" I laughed, to let him know it was a joke. Before long we were sitting, sipping tea, and watching people dash back and forth in the storm.

"You like to help people, don't you, Miss Riddles?" he asked all of a sudden.

"Why do you say that?"

"You could have told me to leave earlier. In fact, you did everything you could to make me comfortable."

"You do a good turn for someone and it comes back to you. I think it's called karma or something."

"That's correct. What I'm going to tell you may sound very strange, but hear me out. If you are not interested, we will never speak of it again."

And that's how I got started at UNCLE. Nothing wild or exciting, just a chance opportunity or maybe it was that karma thingie.

The next thing I knew I had more business than I knew what to do with. Most of it was legitimate in that it actually involved selling houses, but a part of what I did was handle safe houses.

Let me explain what those are. There are times when you need to keep someone some place safe. The way to do that is to pick a place that no one knows about and place the person in it, away from harm.

I handle a lot of houses, thanks in part to UNCLE. They could afford to place ads for my business and I, in turn, specialized in people who were moving and needed someone to sell their place. Of those, some actually went on the market and others UNCLE used for a while. Then we'd put those up on the market and pick some place new.

I never knew how or why they chose the places they did. Every once in a while, I'd get a call and the person, usually a woman, would say, "I'm looking for something for my Uncle Alex and you seem to have just the thing."

I would grab my tape measure, clip board, and special flashlight—Tom had given it to me saying that I might have need of a good flashlight someday. It was metal and clunky, but I loved it. It felt solid in my hand and, this is going to seem silly, but it made me feel safe. Isn't that funny? Anyhow, I'd grab my stuff and go out to the address. There was always someone to meet me and we'd go through the motions as UNCLE gave the place the once over. If it was some place defensible and secure, they'd 'take' it, at least until they needed to move again. I never knew when, where, or why and that was okay with me.

One day, I was going through my listings over lunch. I give everyone in the office a lunch break and then I take mine. I like to eat a little later in the day and, hey, I am the boss. The bell above the door tinkled and I looked up with a smile that disappeared almost as fast as it had come. There were two men and I could tell they were trouble. They just had a look about them.

Sure enough, one of the two, a man so short and round that he looked as if he was trying to square himself, went to the front window and dropped the security curtain. He flipped over the 'closed' sign and locked the door. The other, the Jack Sprat of the pair, walked up and pointed a gun at me.

I whimpered and clutched my desk blotter, like that was going to help anything.

"How does UNCLE choose its safe houses?" Mr. Sprat's voice was a surprising baritone. It should have been high and squeaky.

"I don't know."

"Don't be cute." The gun came up just a little and pointed at my head.

"I'm not. They call me and tell me what they want."

"Where are their safe houses?"

I was torn, but not stupid. I pointed to the row of file cabinets. "In there."

"That's not what he means, darling." Mr. Square had the tiny voice, probably the effect of it having to work itself out of all that squareness.

"Let's go; we are going to take a little drive. Maybe you will be more helpful afterwards."

I bent over and slowly pulled my purse out of my desk drawer. Then I pressed the small button under my desk to let UNCLE know there was trouble.

"What are you doing?" Sprat snapped as I placed my tape measure, clip board and flashlight on my desk.

"I'm getting my stuff. If my staff comes back and doesn't see certain things gone, they will get nervous and call the police." I stood and shoved everything except the clipboard into my purse. "You wouldn't want that, I am assuming."

"You are assuming correctly. We are just looking for a nice house some place quiet and... safe."

We drove this way and that—they were trying to disorient me, but I grew up here and even though I'd not been down some of the streets they drove on, I still knew where I was. We ended up in a suburb, one of many that surrounded the City.

We casually walked up the sidewalk and I noted with contentment that the gardening firm I hired was doing a nice job of maintaining the outside of the property. The Sold! sign on top of the real estate sign was a surprise, but I was with two men, both armed and dangerous. I suspected it was just one of many that I'd be encountering.

Once we got inside, they half pulled, half pushed me towards a back room. Like many such rooms, it was empty save some trash on the floor and a pile of something in the corner.

"Maybe this will make you a bit more forthcoming." Sprat shoved me in and I heard the door lock behind me.

The room was dim as there was a board over the window. Concerned, I went there first, worried that the glass might have been broken, then I caught myself. Heh, I'd been kidnapped and had a gun shoved in my face and I worried about the condition of the property—I am such a real estate agent.

The board was on the outside, but the glass was intact. I still had my purse and I dug through it until I found my trusty flashlight and turned it on. That's when the pile moved. At first I feared rats, but then I realized it was a man.

"Who are you?" I stammered.

"Who are you?" he answered back. He had the same sort of accent as Tom and that made me feel a little better.

"I'm Wendy Riddles."

"Why do I know that name?" he asked and I was about to say something when the pile moved again. Another guy.

"UNCLE real estate agent." This voice was American, but rough sounding, like he had a sore throat or something.

At the word UNCLE, I approached them, gasping as the light shined over them. They'd both been beaten up something awful. The dark haired guy tried to smile at me, but ended up coughing instead.

"Napoleon Solo," he managed after a minute. "My partner, Illya Kuryakin."

"Those guys, they want the location of your safe houses," I said and then realized they must have already figured that part out.

"What did you tell them?" The blond was cradling his arm. It looked broken, but it could have just been the light. He shook his head hard and pointed to the door with his good arm. It dawned on me that they were listening.

"Nothing. I don't know how you guys choose stuff or which rental properties you use." I winked, hoping they realized I was pretending to play along. "You don't think they will hurt me, do you?" I found a ballpoint in my purse and scribbled out I alerted UNCLE.

Napoleon nodded and sat up a little more, wincing. "You don't happen to have a gun or anything in there, do you?"

"Sadly no, just my tape measure and the flashlight my Uncle Tom gave me."

"Uncle Tom? Illya?" He spoke to the blond now, so softly that I could barely hear him. "What do you think?"

Illya... I'd heard the name before, but couldn't place it—he reached out and I gave him the flashlight.

"It's a nice one," he said loudly, then softer. "Miss Riddles, unscrew it."

I did as he requested and blinked at the loss of light. It took me a second to get my night vision, but I could see them fiddling with it and hear the whispers. "The blue one, Napoleon, it's the blue one."

"Which one is blue? I can't tell in this light."

"That one... in your right hand... your other right hand, Napoleon. Twist it hard and reassemble the flashlight."

"Okay now what?"

"Get rid of it. You just armed it and you have about two minutes before it goes off."

"What?" Napoleon came to an abrupt stop. "It was very clever of you to hide the list in the flashlight, Miss Riddles. They'll never think to..."

The door was kicked in and I winced. That was going to be expensive to fix. Mr. Square came rushing in, pointing his gun. He kicked Napoleon, grabbed the flashlight, and socked Illya as he tried to wrestle it free from the bad guy.

Mr. Square ran from the room and Napoleon and Illya were suddenly on me, holding me against the wall.

I woke up about four hours later in the hospital. I stared up at the ceiling for a long time, trying to figure out what had happened. My leg was in a cast and I hurt in more places than I could think about. A nurse looked in and smiled.

Her lips moved, but I couldn't hear anything. Panicked, I touched my ears and she held up a hand and shook her head. On a piece of paper, she wrote, It's because of the blast. Your hearing will be fine.

Blast? Oh, my poor flashlight, sacrificed in the line of duty. Tears started dribbling down my cheeks. I loved my faithful old flashlight. Sure it was clunky and old, but Tom had given it to me.

Don't cry. You are lucky to be alive. She held up a newspaper. Gas Main Explosion SendsHouse Sky High! Two killed!

Now I started to cry in earnest. Those two UNCLE agents, they'd died protecting me.

Are you in pain? The nurse wrote and I looked up to explain and that's when I saw them standing in the doorway. I blinked, afraid I was dreaming them, but they were real.

"You're alive," I cried and Napoleon limped over to me. He was still a mess of bruises and cuts, but I'd never seen anyone look so good. Illya, he had his arm in a cast and looked like there were a million places he'd rather be and all of them in bed.

"How are you feeling?" He must have said it loudly, not just because Illya winced and touched a bandage on his temple, but because I sort of heard him.

"I'm okay... aren't I?"

He leaned forward and spoke directly into my ear. "You are better than okay. You're an UNCLE agent. As soon as you are out of the cast, I'm going to take you for a night on the town that you won't believe."

"I'll hold you to that, Napoleon." I said and he laughed. Then Illya came forward and pulled something out of his sling and offered it to me.

"I know it's not exactly the same, but you earned this."

It was a brand new flashlight. I took it with my bandaged hands and held it to my heart. "Thank you."

Well, I got out of the hospital finally, but my adventure wasn't without a price. I walk with a slight limp now and I can always tell when a weather front is coming in from the ache in my leg. UNCLE took care of me though. They even moved my office from downtown to a safer part of the city. It has a ton of security features now that the old place didn't have and my business doubled because of the publicity I got. I mostly stay in the office these days and let my associates take the field work. But I never ever let anyone use my flashlight.

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