Heat erupted in a shower of sparks as I plunged the high-alloy steel back into the annealing embers and dragged an arm across my forehead, taking care to avoid the bulky, blackened welding glove. No doubt I’d still have sooty streaks decorating my otherwise pale face when I left the studio. I always did. Metal dust clung to the sweat on my arms, glittering like shining scales. Even with the door propped open behind me, the unusually warm October air did little to temper the heat of the forge.
Lost in the beat of my 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 me, wearing jeans and a polo shirt, there was 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. There was 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 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?”
The muscle under my right eye twitched. Most people only knew me as Alex. Other than legal documents, I rarely used my full name. “That’s right.”
“We’ve come to purchase an item from you, an engraved silver box.”
My shoulders dropped as the tension in them eased a little. It wasn’t often customers stopped 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 kinda backed up 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 anything like that in stock.”
“We know it came your way. If you hand it over, we’ll 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. There was only one entrance to the studio 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 down side 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 that 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 fairy 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 fairy 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 four months back. He didn’t seem inclined to leave but, knowing the fickle nature of strays, I 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 hands.
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.
The oversized shed I used for a studio was a short walk from the ranch-style house on the three acres of Colorado mountainside I called home.
With trembling hands, I poured a glass of water and guzzled it down to steady my nerves. My first instinct was to call Uncle Sol. Not really my uncle, he was the closest thing I had to family since an accident took my mother and left me orphaned at seventeen. It wasn’t just for comfort that I thought of him, though.
Few people outside the PTF – Paranatural Task Force – had seen a fae without glamour since the end of the Fairy Wars a decade before, and those who did were required to report it. Like many officers from the war, Sol joined the PTF to help police the fae after the peace treaties were signed. I wasn’t sure what Sol’s job was exactly. When I asked, he’d say it was classified and I was better off not knowing. Unfortunately, Sol was out of the country on assignment, unreachable. I’d have to call the local PTF office just like anyone else.
Pushing back the unruly auburn hair that had escaped my ponytail yet again, I pulled out my cell phone. The voice mail icon blinked in the corner.
I’d completely forgotten about Aiden’s call the night before. After four hours at the gallery schmoozing with people whose clothes cost more than my car, I’d wanted nothing more than to fall into bed, so I passed him off to my voice mail. While Aiden was a dear friend, conversations with him tended to be long and exhausting. I hadn’t been in the mood for one of his “the world is out to get me” paranoid tirades.
I still wasn’t, and I had my own mess to sort out.
Most cities had a PTF office, but Nederland was too small to warrant its own staff, so I punched in the number for the Boulder branch. First, there was the standard automated response to navigate: press one if you think you may be paranatural, two if you want to report someone you think may be paranatural, etc. Then there was the call center secretary, whose job was to juggle the calls on hold without dropping anyone. I drummed my fingers against the counter as my irritation grew with every transfer, hold music grating in my ear. Finally, I found my way to an actual agent.
“Ben O’Connell here,” the gruff voice said. “Did you have an incident to report?”
“Yes. Two guys threatened me and at least one was a fairy.”
“What makes you think that?” His condescending tone put me on edge, like he didn’t think I was qualified to identify a fae without the special training he’d undoubtedly had.
“For starters, his face melted when I hit him with my tongs.”
“You what?” I jerked the phone from my ear in pain. When I brought it back he was mid-rant. “…how dangerous it is to confront a fae?”
“It’s not like I meant to,” I snapped defensively. “He grabbed me and I reacted. Besides, I didn’t know he was a fae before that.”
“Fine.” He sounded only mildly placated. “What happened next?”
“I guess his glamour broke, because he stopped looking like a person.”
“Yes, iron will have that effect.” I could practically see him nodding. “What did he look like without his glamour?”
“About six and a half feet tall, see-through skin, webbed hands, no nose, and a huge mouth full of teeth like needles.”
“A sea-fae then. What about the other?”
“He looked human, but he didn’t seem surprised when his friend changed. If he wasn’t a fae himself, he at least knew the other guy was.”
“Can you describe him?”
I tried to remember specifics about Smith’s features, but he appeared in my mind only as the vague impression of a man. “He had brown hair and eyes, and he was wearing a brown suit.”
“Did you get their names?”
“Yeah, but I doubt they were real. The fae was Neil, and the second guy called himself Smith.”
“Did they say what they wanted?”
“They were looking for an engraved silver box.”
“Do you have this box?”
“Nope. I’ve got no clue what they were talking about, or why they thought I had it.”
“All right, Ms. Blackwood. Thank you for bringing this to our attention. If your visitors are registered we should be able to track them down through their visas. There aren’t many sea fae in this area.”
As part of the peace treaty that gave the fae sovereignty over their reservations, the powers-that-be also negotiated the visas that restricted and recorded fae presence on human lands. The fae reservations were nations unto themselves where the human government had no jurisdiction, and humans were strictly prohibited from entering. In exchange, any fae that wanted to leave the reservation had to register with the PTF and apply for a visa that monitored the length and purpose of their stay. Considering their actions, I held little hope my visitors had followed the rules.
“In either case, we’ll try to locate them and bring them in for questioning. Then we’ll contact you with any findings deemed safe for release from your case file.”
I grimaced at the bureaucratic parlance that boiled down to: don’t hold your breath.
“If you have any further contact with them, report it immediately.”
“I will.” I pressed the disconnect button and stared at the phone. If only Uncle Sol had been available.
I was still holding the phone when it rang again, making me jump. I didn’t recognize the number.
“I’m Agent Mariana Garcia.”
“Wow, that was fast.” It seemed my report had been handed off to another agent. Hopefully this one would be more helpful.
“Aren’t you calling about my case?”
“What case?” She sounded as confused as I felt.
“The fae incident I just reported.”
“What? No. I’m with the FBI.”
“Oh!” My heart skipped a beat as my brain caught up with the conversation. “Why is the FBI calling me?”
“There’s something we need to discuss. Can you meet me at the Boulder police department today?”
Time ticked by as my dumfounded silence filled the conversation. Why would the FBI want to talk to me, let alone have me come to a police station? “What’s this about?”
“I just need to ask you some questions.”
My stomach roiled with equal parts curiosity and dread, but it seemed answers would have to wait. “I’ll be there in an hour.”
* * *
The Boulder police department was housed in the gray and white Public Safety Center on 33rd. Just passing through those doors made me feel guilty, but the woman behind the desk gave a friendly smile and said, “Can I help you?”
“I’m looking for Agent Garcia. She’s expecting me.”
Flipping through a stack of notes she said, “Alex Blackwood? Right this way,” and led me to a break room near the middle of the building with plain plastic tables and chairs, a refrigerator, and a Starbucks coffee machine. I filled one of the paper cups stacked beside the machine, settled into a chair, and took a sip – maybe not the best idea considering the way my knee was jumping.
My solitude didn’t last long. I’d barely set the cup down when a man walked in, surveyed the room, and sauntered over to me. Unlike most officers walking around the precinct, there was nothing to immediately identify him as a cop. Sporting a leather jacket, jeans, and hair that had never met a comb, he looked like he’d wandered in off the street. The faint trace of cigarettes wafted in with him.
“I’m Detective Brian Thomson. I believe you spoke with Agent Garcia earlier. She’s running a little late, but she should be here any– Ah, speak of the devil.”
I turned to see a short Hispanic woman in a staid black suit walk through another set of doors. Even with her shoulders back and chin up, she barely came to Thompson’s shoulder.
“Sorry to keep you waiting, Ms. Blackwood.” She and Thompson joined me at the table. “I’m Agent Garcia. I’m currently heading up a special task force that includes several police districts. Detective Thompson is stationed here in Boulder, but he’s part of that task force as well. We’re investigating a number of deaths in this area.”
My stomach turned to lead. “What’s that got to do with me?”
Both cops watched me with unreadable faces. Then Garcia asked, “Are you familiar with a man named Aiden Daye?”
The pressure spread to my lungs. I didn’t like where this was going. “He’s a friend. We went to college together. Why do you ask?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mr. Daye is dead.”
The cup slipped from my fingers. I was only dimly aware of coffee spilling across the table and dripping to the floor. My vision began to swim.
“Take slow, even breaths.” Thompson’s voice sounded distant, as though he were at the far end of a tunnel.
I crossed my arms over my stomach and rocked in time to the throbbing in my ears until I remembered how to breathe.
“No.” I shook my head in flagrant denial.
“He was killed in his home last night.”
“Killed?” The squeak in my voice hinted at hysterics, and the room blurred as tears filled my eyes. “What happened?”
“That’s what we’re trying to find out. When did you last hear from him?”
I remembered his picture flashing across my screen and the voice mail I’d put off listening to. “Oh my god!”
“What is it, Ms. Blackwood?” Garcia perched at the edge of her seat, looking as though she wanted to vault the table and wring her answers out of me.
“He called me last night, but I was tired and I didn’t answer…” My voice caught on the implication. Could it be my fault he was dead, because I’d been too wrapped up in my own life to answer the damn phone? My message may well have been the last words of a dying man. Fumbling in my bag with shaking fingers, I accessed my voice mail and put it on speaker.
“Alex?” Aiden’s characteristically tense voice was pitched low, carrying my name through the receiver in a hoarse whisper. “Damn it! What’s the point of having a cell phone if you don’t pick up? Listen, I think someone’s watching me. I’ve got this feeling, ya know? Anyway, you should pick up the present for your grandfather as soon as you can. Okay, well, I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
As the message cut off, the three of us stared in silence at the phone in my hand, processing words cast back to us by a ghost.
Thompson recovered first. “Do you have any idea who might have been following him?”
I shook my head. “Aiden always said things like that. He always thought someone was out to get him. When we were in college, he thought people were planting devices in his room to spy on him. He wouldn’t let people into his house until he’d run a background check. He was paranoid.”
“Maybe he had reason to be. Did he ever mention who might be out to get him, or why?”
“No. It seemed totally illogical. Just a weird quirk. When we asked him about it he’d get all secretive and say it wasn’t safe to talk.”
“You never saw any evidence that he was being targeted?”
“No. Like I said, I thought he was just being paranoid. There was something weird about that message, though. The bit about picking up a present for my grandfather. I haven’t got a grandfather. I haven’t got any relatives. Aiden knows that. Er, knew that.”
“What do you think he meant?” asked Thompson. “Could it be a misdirect to confuse whoever he thought was watching?”
I shook my head. “I have no idea. If he was trying to confuse someone he did a good job, because I don’t know what he was talking about.”
Garcia pulled a digital recorder out of her pocket. “I’d like to make a copy of that message.”
“Of course.” I played the message again, and choked up at the end. Turning away, I scrubbed my cheeks and tried to collect myself as the gnawing feeling there was something I could have done to prevent my friend’s murder cracked my usual composure.
“Can you tell me what happened?”
The cops shared a glance, and Garcia gave a tiny nod.
“It was a home invasion. We don’t know what, if anything, was taken, but the house was tossed.” Thompson paused before adding, “It looked like your friend put up a fight.”
I pictured Aiden fighting for his life and clenched my fists. Why hadn’t he just run? But then, that was just like him, fighting even when he couldn’t win.
“We haven’t released the name or details yet,” Garcia pointed out. “So, please keep this to yourself for the time being.”
Without thinking I blurted, “I have to tell David.” Then added, “He was Aiden’s only real friend besides me.”
Garcia flipped to a back page in her notebook. “Would this be David Anderson?”
“I’m scheduled to speak with him later today. We’d appreciate it if you’d wait until tomorrow to talk to him.” Garcia’s tone made it clear that “appreciate” really meant “insist,” and I wasn’t going to like the outcome if I didn’t comply.
It pissed me off, but I understood the reasoning. “All right.”
Thompson gave a curt nod. “Thank you for your help, Ms. Blackwood.”
I pushed back from the table, but stopped as a thought struck me. “I know it’s a stretch, but a couple fae came to my studio this morning looking for a box they seemed convinced I had. Do you think it could have anything to do with Aiden? If he meant for me to pick something up…”
Garcia quirked an eyebrow, pencil poised. “What happened, exactly?”
“They were looking for a silver box. When I said I didn’t have it one of them tried to grab me and I hit him with the iron tongs I was holding. His glamour broke and he passed out. The second guy seemed to believe I didn’t have what they were looking for, and they left.”
“Hmm. If they were killers you’d probably be in the morgue, but the timing is suspicious. I’ll check with the PTF, look for a connection. What agent did you speak with?”
“O’Connell, O’Conner, something like that. He’s in the Boulder office.” It annoyed me that I’d forgotten the details, but it had been a crazy day.
“Thank you, Ms. Blackwood.” Garcia held out a business card. “If you think of anything else, call me.”
I stared at the card in my hand, and swallowed the lump in my throat. “Please find who did this to my friend.”
She nodded. “I intend to.”
I drove home on autopilot, barely registering my surroundings. Before I knew it, I was in my living room.
I walked to the mantle and picked up one of the framed pictures there. It showed David, Aiden, and me making silly faces on a beach in Mexico. The dull ache in my chest sharpened, growing deeper. When I’d started college, I’d been alone. No parents, no relatives, no friends. A lifetime of moving had left me with few real connections and no delusions about lasting relationships. David changed that when he sat next to me in freshman lit and struck up a conversation despite my best efforts. Two months later he introduced me to his eccentric roommate, Aiden, and the three of us became inseparable. With Aiden gone, it felt like a piece of my heart was missing.
Cat butted against my ankle, demanding attention, and I scratched him behind the ears.
“Hey buddy.” Hobbled by the order not to contact David until the following day, I scooped Cat into my arms and proceeded to tell him of my friend’s passing. He took it in stride, as cats do, and snuggled with me until a growling stomach reminded me I was still alive. I found some leftovers in the fridge, ate them cold, and turned in for an early night, all the while clinging to the dim hope that tomorrow would bring a return to normalcy.