METAL DUST CLUNG to the sweat on my arms, glittering like shining scales. Even with the studio door propped open behind me, the uncommonly warm October air did little to temper the heat of the forge. A shower of sparks erupted as I plunged the carbon steel rod back into the annealing embers and dragged an arm across my forehead, taking care to avoid the bulky, blackened welding glove. I’d probably still end up with sooty streaks decorating my otherwise pale face. I always did.
Lost in the beat of my old MP3 player, I started belting out the lyrics of Robert DeLong’s Don’t Wait Up as I prepared the next rod. Then a touch settled—light and tentative—on my arm, and the bottom fell out of my stomach.
Tongs clutched in one hand, hammer in the other, I spun.
“Whoa, whoa.” His lips formed the words, though I couldn’t hear them over the music blaring through my headphones.
An inch shorter than I was, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, I had no reason to think the man was anything but human. But then, who could tell these days? He took a step back, hands raised, either to show he meant no harm or to ward off the blow he thought was coming.
Behind him, near the open door, stood a second man. He wore a rumpled brown suit that matched his hair and eyes. Average height, average build, average looks. Nothing remarkable about him.
Moving to put the anvil between us, I set the hammer down and pulled off my headphones, but kept a white-knuckled grip on the tongs. The higher-than-average number of violent crimes this summer had me on edge—along with everyone else—though none of the violence had come so far as my neck of the woods. It seemed unlikely a murderer would get my attention before attacking, but my heart raced a mile a minute as I faced the strangers. “Who are you?”
The man nearest me lowered his arms. “We announced ourselves, but it seems you didn’t hear.”
I scowled at his attempt to put the blame back on me. This was my studio, and they were uninvited guests.
“My apologies.” This came from Mr. Unremarkable. The monotone of his voice matched his appearance, revealing nothing. “You may call me Smith. My associate is Neil. Am I addressing Alyssandra Blackwood?”
A muscle under my right eye twitched. Most people only knew me as Alex. Alyssandra hadn’t existed anywhere but legal documents since I was twelve and traded the name in for something stronger, more
“We’ve come to purchase an item from you, an engraved silver box.”
My shoulders dropped as the tension in them eased a little. Customers didn’t often stop by the studio unannounced, but it wasn’t unheard of. People sometimes got my address from the Souled Art Gallery
in Boulder where I showed my work, or from previous customers, and came to commission pieces. Most were courteous enough to call ahead.
“I’m booked on orders right now. I could maybe get to it next month.”
“You misunderstand. We are looking for an object already in your possession.”
“Oh. Well, sorry to disappoint, but I don’t have an item like that in stock.”
“We know the box came your way. If you hand it over, we can make it worth your while.” Neil had the slick, sleazy tone of a used car salesman. Curious though I was about this box, and why they thought I had it, I’d had enough of the conversation. Even if they weren’t killers, they gave me the creeps. I shook my head. “You were misinformed.”
“Ms. Blackwood,” Smith said. “Be reasonable. We’re willing to pay handsomely, and considering the other parties involved, you’re not likely to get a better offer. Surely it isn’t worth the risk?”
My breath caught as the thinly veiled threat hit me like a punch in the gut.
“You need to leave, now.” My voice trembled slightly. The studio only had one door, and they were between it and me. I was trapped. Shifting my stance, I tightened my grip on the tongs, willing them not to shake.
Smith raised his hands in a placating manner. “I think we’ve gotten off on the wrong foot. You might not even realize you have the item we seek. It would look quite common, like a jewelry box.”
“I told you, I haven’t got anything like that. Now get out of here before I call the cops.” It was a bluff, of course, I’d left my cell phone in the house. Even if I could call, the police would never arrive in time to help. That was the downside of living so far from town. I was on my own.
“Enough of this.” Neil stepped around the anvil and reached for my arm.
I didn’t like to fight, I avoided confrontations when I could, but if he thought I was going to roll over, he was wrong. With a guttural howl, I twisted my wrist out of Neil’s grip and swung the tongs into his face. His skin split apart like newspaper peeling back from a fire, scorched black and crinkled around the edges. An unearthly shriek filled the studio, and I stumbled back, shocked at the damage I’d done.
Neil shimmered and seemed to melt. His skin became transparent, and a network of blue veins crawled beneath its surface. His nose spread and sank into his face, leaving two flared slits. Below that, the mouth emitting that horrible sound elongated until the gaping, needle-lined hole grew so large I could have put my whole fist in without scraping my knuckles. When he reached up to cover his face, his fingers had nearly doubled in length, the webbing between them connecting all the way to the tips. His fingernails stretched and thickened to claws. The creature before me was straight out of a horror movie, and I added my own scream to the cacophony.
Wielding my tongs like a baseball bat, I backed away from the writhing shape which had been the man Neil seconds before. Even at the best of times, my stomach cramped when someone mentioned the
fae. Seeing one in the flesh was like having a bucket of ice water dumped on my head. I shivered from head to toe, and fought the urge to throw up.
Smith crossed the space between himself and Neil in two steps and pulled Neil’s arms down to expose the hideous gash burned across his cheek. My stomach lurched at what I’d done. White glinted where bone showed beneath charred flesh. The eye above had swelled shut and was rapidly turning a sickly greenish color. Smith placed one palm against Neil’s forehead, and the horrible wail abruptly cut off as Neil sagged in Smith’s arms.
“It seems we were mistaken.” Smith spoke as he had before, without inflection or emotion. Nothing to show surprise or concern that he was holding an unconscious, injured faerie in his arms. “Good day, Ms. Blackwood.”
My mind went blank as I fumbled for words.
Smith took my stupefied silence in stride. Hefting Neil without visible effort, he gave a small parting nod and carried his companion out of the studio.
I remained where I was until the sound of car doors closing and the crunch of gravel told me I was alone. Then, still clutching my tongs, I inched to the door and took a deep breath of the outside air. The
driveway was empty, no cars in sight. No faerie goons either. My knees gave out under the weight of the panic I’d been keeping in check, and I sank to the ground, tongs still clutched in my shaking hands. The tea I’d had for breakfast felt like acid in my stomach, threatening to come back up.
A gray tabby with yellow-green eyes peeked around the corner of the shed with a questioning, “Meow?” Cat had appeared on my doorstep a few months back, begging for scraps, and I’d made the mistake of giving him some. He’d come around every day since. Despite the fact he’d already stuck around longer than most of the guys in my life, I’d steadfastly refused to name him.
“Fat lot of good you were.”
Lifting his nose, Cat swished his tail and stalked away.
It was silly to take my anxiety out on Cat, but it was easier than dealing with the panic and adrenaline threatening to overwhelm me. Anything to distract from the flesh seared to the tongs in my shaking
I couldn’t imagine forging more, so with a wary eye on the door I dampened the coals and stored my tools, each in its marked place on my pegboard. The gooey tongs went on a shelf, I’d throw them in an acid bath later.