Metal dust clung to the sweat on my arms, glittering like shining scales. Even with the 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 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, 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 practical.
“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 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, 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 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 seven acres of Colorado mountainside I called home. Shutting the door on Cat’s meows for handouts, I poured a glass of water with trembling hands 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 Faerie 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. They kept the registries of all the fae and halfers who ventured off the reservations, as well as the few magic-wielding human practitioners not on the leash of the Catholic Church. They also investigated reports of paranatural activity, magic misuse, and the possible existence of other creatures, like vampires, aliens, and ghosts, though only the fae and practitioners had ever been substantiated.
I wasn’t sure exactly what Sol’s job with the PTF was, just that he was a pretty big muckety-muck whose work was classified. His assignments often took him out of the country and off the radar, and he’d left for another such mission last month. He’d be incommunicado for at least another week, which meant 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 a hectic afternoon installing my work at the gallery and four hours schmoozing with people whose clothes cost more than my car, I’d wanted nothing more than to fall into bed. Aiden was a dear friend, but it was hard to compete with a soft mattress at the end of a long day, and sleep ultimately won out over what was sure to be one of his classic “the world is out to get me” paranoid tirades.
I hesitated, staring at the icon, but conversations with Aiden tended to drag on, and I had my own mess to sort out at the moment.
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, I suffered through the standard automated menu: 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 seemed to be to test how long people would stay on hold. 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. “You have an incident to report?”
“Yes. Two guys threatened me and at least one was a faerie.”
“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 iron 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 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 glared at the phone. If only Uncle Sol had been available.
I was still holding the phone when a knock at the door made me jump.
My heart rate went into overdrive. Neil couldn’t have recovered already, but Smith?
Pocketing the phone, I crossed to the front window and peeked out. A short, round woman with dark skin and darner hair stood on my porch.
I breathed out, but my shoulders refused to relax. There was a reason I lived miles from the nearest town. It was rare for me to get a single visitor in a week, which was just the way I liked it. This was nothing short of an invasion.
I pulled the door open enough to speak, but left the chain in place. “Can I help you?”
The woman straightened as though she could make up for the difference in our height with sheer will. “Ms. Blackwood?”
“I’m Detective Garcia.” She indicated a polished badge on her belt.” I work for the Lakewood Police Department.”
I narrowed my eyes, frowning. “What can I do for you, detective?”
She gestured to the cracked door that separated us. “May I come in?”
Clenching my teeth, I slipped the chain off the door and stepped back. “What’s this about?”
“I just need to ask you some questions.” She pushed past me and paced straight to my dinged-up dining table.
I made a detour to the attached kitchen, where I poured a mug of coffee from the half-empty pot left from that morning and zapped it in the microwave. “Want a drink?”
“No, thank you.” She pulled out a seat facing me, her back to the wall, and plucked a small notebook and pen from her pocket.
I sat across from her, clutching my warm mug in both hands. My knee jumped like a jackhammer under the table. “So, what’s this about?”
“I’m part of a special task force investigating a number of possibly connected deaths.”
My stomach turned to lead. Had the police finally found a connection between all the recent murders? But… “What’s that got to do with me?”
Garcia watched me with an unreadable face. “Are you familiar with a man named Aiden Daye?”
The pressure in my gut spread to my lungs. I didn’t like where this was going. “He’s a friend. We went to college together. Why?”
“I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Mr. Daye is dead.”