IRON & BONE (excerpt)
The office had three gray walls, no natural light, and just enough space for a filing cabinet, a desk, and a rolling chair. The chair had two broken casters, and no longer rolled. Whenever Matthew moved in the chair, it made a soft, dragging sound.
The only other sounds in the office were the clicking of Matthew’s fingers across the computer keyboard, and the susurration of his own breath. He was a quiet breather; the noise was all but inaudible.
He had once asked if he might bring in a small radio to play while he worked. His employer had rejected him curtly: Absolutely not. Whether he was worried the radio would distract Matthew or if the man simply found music distasteful, Matthew didn’t know, and had better sense than to inquire.
So he worked in silence, tallying the receipts from his employer’s four shops, including The Gem Shoppe, where his tiny office was located opposite from his employer’s much larger one. Eight hours a day of compiling figures into Quickbooks and running reports of monthly profits and losses. It was dull work, especially now that tax season was over. Matthew found himself missing the volume of paperwork that passed across his desk in early spring, all the 1099s that had to be mailed by end of January, and then the start of federal forms, February and March consumed by the search for every single tax deduction that could possibly lower his employer’s due. He never felt so happily busy as he did during tax season, the mad rustle of paper its own cheerful song.
It was Monday now, and nearly noon. Matthew had sorted the receipts for two stores already, The Gem Shoppe and Green Herbal. Three more store remained to be sorted before the close of business. It was the same every Monday. He arrived at five minutes to nine, and the store was already unlocked. In the main display room, the crystal specimens were set out on stretches of black velvet, and in Matthew’s office, five identical boxes of receipts waited.
There was no sign of his employer, but Matthew knew Mr. Dietrich was there; he was always there. Usually in his office, but sometimes surveying the contents of the walk-in vault. Matthew seldom had reason to be in the vault, and preferred it that way. There was a chill in the room that made his bones ache. The silence there felt different than other silences. It had a waiting quality about it. Matthew couldn’t begin to imagine what the vault was waiting for, but he doubted it was anything good.
There was still time before lunch to begin a new box of receipts. He opened the next in line, which had come from Mr. Dietrich’s pet shop, Familiar. Matthew had a difficult time picturing his employer as the owner of a pet shop. It didn’t seem to fit the man. When he was still new, he’d made the mistake of asking about that, about why Mr. Dietrich spread himself so widely in his business ventures. The gem shop, the pet shop, the health food store, the café, and most bizarrely, the matchmaking service. Was there a connection between them, he had wondered?
Victor Dietrich had fixed him with such a cold look that Matthew felt a ball of ice form in the pit of his stomach. “My interests are my own, Mr. Goode,” the man said in his hard, flat voice, “and your job description does not include questioning those interests if you wish to have a job at all.”
Matthew had never mentioned it again. Because of course he very much wished to have a job, even if it wasn’t particularly a dream job. The wage was adequate (though barely). And he liked the regularity of his days, knowing what to expect, and that he would not be pressured into taking on extra work. His previous employer had been a small business owner who expected him to grow with the business, to take on more and more responsibilities and make decisions that affected growth and direction. The pressure had been incredibly stressful. He much preferred Mr. Dietrich’s ways, frosty and controlling. Mr. Dietrich would never permit, much less expect Matthew to begin setting policy on his own.
Matthew created a new Exel sheet, copying the format from the week before, and began entering the pet shop’s sales. Briefly and solely for his own curiosity, he glanced at the “items” sold on each receipt.
One black kitten.
Six cane toads.
One white kitten.
It was, Matthew had decided a long time ago, a very odd pet shop.
The bell over the front door chimed, echoing down the short hallway where Matthew’s door stood open (per Mr. Dietrich’s order). He glanced out the door, forgetting for a moment the quandary of how one might make a pet of a three week old Komodo dragon, and hoping for a customer. Not that Mr. Dietrich would ever let him speak to the customers, of course. But sometimes he called Matthew out to ring up sales. Mr. Dietrich had a deep aversion to processing credit cards.
It wasn’t a customer. It was McCarthy.
Matthew’s heart executed a peculiar vault and flip worthy of any Olympic gymnast, and then settled into a fluttery beat. The office seemed suddenly warm, spring creeping in from outside as if it simply couldn’t be kept out any longer; perhaps it had come in with McCarthy.
What Matthew knew about the man called McCarthy he could count on three fingers. First, that his favorite color must have been black, just like Mr. Dietrich, because that was all either of them ever wore. But where the color (or lack thereof) made their employer appear somewhat corpselike, McCarthy seemed to have been born to it. The soft black leather of his high-collared coat perfectly matched his hair, which was drawn into a long braid that hung halfway down his back. Black jeans seemed molded to him, showing every inch of long legs, muscled thighs. His gloves, too, were black, and also the aviator sunglasses perched on the bridge of his fine aquiline nose. All that darkness ought to have made his white skin look far too pale, and it waspale; but the stark contrast was outlandishly appealing. Matthew thought.
Second, whatever work McCarthy did for Mr. Dietrich, it was dangerous. Every time he appeared at The Gem Shoppe he had some new scar, or limp. Frequently his lovely coat, so soft it seemed to fold around him like wings, had been damaged. Though he seemed to have an endless supply of them, changing one out for another by the next visit. Like the ruined coats, his scars had usually also disappeared by the next time Matthew saw him.
The third thing Matthew knew, and perhaps the most important thing, was that he would never in his lifetime meet a man more perfectly devastating to his senses than the man called McCarthy. Or a man more terribly out of his league.
The front door fell shut. Tinted glass cut off the impression of warmth and overcast skies, and the brief lift in the air flattened again. The gems on their shelves went on sparkling, impossibly bright. McCarthy ignored the gems and the empty show room and stalked toward the hall, shiny black boots utterly silent.
Matthew looked quickly back down at his desk, trying to remember which entry he’d been in the middle of so that he could resume his absorption in it. He couldn’t for the life of him recall.
“Good morning, Matthew.”
A cool shadow fell across the desk. McCarthy smelled like the threat of rain, and he was tall enough to fill the doorway completely. His voice was dark as midnight, smooth as silk, warmer than his shadow.
Without looking up, Matthew said, “Good morning… McCarthy.” As always, with that little pause. Because after six years of working at The Gem Shoppe, he still wasn’t sure if McCarthy was a first name or a last name. McCarthy had never volunteered more, and neither had their mutual employer.
Good morning, in fact, was the extent of their typical conversation, with the occasional notation on the weather.
McCarthy’s shadow lingered. Matthew wondered if he was about to comment on the approaching hurricane, early for the season. Perhaps McCarthy had weekend plans that would now be ruined by wind and rain.
Yet the other man remained silent. When Matthew glanced up, he found McCarthy frowning down at the stack of receipts on the desk.
His eyes were indigo. Matthew had only been near enough to him to make out their true color once or twice. From any distance, they simply looked black.
“Christ. The dragon sold already.”
Matthew blinked, and then remembered the pet shop. “Ah, yes. The Komodo. For nine thousand nine hundred ninety-nine dollars. Plus tax, of course.”
McCarthy lifted a gloved hand absently to his jaw. “He should have doubled it. The thing’s too much trouble to restock.”
His jaw was smooth and unmarked now, but Matthew recalled a week earlier when McCarthy had come in with a vicious festering wound there that appeared in the shape of a bite.
McCarthy shook his head as he stepped back out of the office. An errant lock of coal black hair brushed his cheek, softening for a moment the unyielding lines of his face. Matthew’s heart startled again. He tried to formulate a response, any response, but between the lock of hair, the scent of leather, and the notion that McCarthy might actually have gone off to some sweltering island to procure that lizard, he was stuck.
He was still stuck when McCarthy paused again, just outside the door, and glanced back. “By the way—happy birthday, Matthew.”
Matthew blinked again, rapidly.
“Thank you,” he said a full minute later, but by that time of course, McCarthy had gone.