The Touch of Iron

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Dev ducked under the overhang into what was practically a small cave beneath the hill, trying desperately not to breathe loudly enough to draw the attention of his pursuers. Rust-stained moss covered the old rock around him, and footsteps echoed down from the hilltop maybe twenty feet above.

"I swear Devon was right over here," Mr. Mackal said, his voice distorted slightly by the rock around Dev. "This was his search sector, and you only showed up a minute or two after he went out."

"He doesn't need to search," Police Chief Carey said. "He probably hid Morgan's body himself."

"Are you sure?" Mackal said. "He was such a good student in my shop class, at least until he was expelled. I still have a pe—"

"He's a thug," Carey said. "Always has been, always will be. Got that from his father's side. God knows what he inherited from his mother . . . probably an addiction to something or other. She's not picky."

Mackal sighed. "I'd always hoped he'd turn out differently."

Dev gritted his teeth and tried to ignore them. He'd grown up broad and thick-jawed like his father and uncles, and even his mother had always assumed he would end up violent like them. He'd alternated between resisting and embracing that destiny until he was sixteen, when, after one vicious fight, he'd seen himself for who he really was.

"Well, that hope failed," Carey said, "as did my attempt to bring him in, from the looks of it. The mayor's going to be pissed. I wish we'd learned sooner."

"Learned what?"

"Morgan's parents heard a hunting horn blown two nights ago around the time she disappeared, and we think that was his signal to her to sneak out of the house and meet him. Hmmm . . . speaking of signals, can you warn the rest of your searchers to keep an eye out for him?"

"Aye, Sir," Mackal said.

Dev breathed a sigh of relief, but it caught in his chest when he realized what "warn" meant. He fumbled frantically at his belt, so terrified he ignored the coins he accidentally knocked loose from his pocket, pulled out the radio he'd been given when the search had begun about fifteen minutes earlier, and managed to shut it off seconds before Mackal radioed everyone asking them to call in if they saw Dev.

"Thanks," Carey said when Mackal finished. "Did you hear something down there, though?"

"No, sorry," Mackal said.

Carey's footsteps approached the edge of the overhang. "I don't see anything down there," he said. "Well, there is a—God damn it!" Carey shouted in pain and scrambled back from the edge.

"What's wrong, Chief Carey?" Mackal asked.

"That rock . . . I'm sorry, Mac, I have a terrible allergy to iron, and that rock is full of it."

"Will you be alright? For a moment there, you looked . . . it was like you aged forty years there for a second."

"To hell with this," Carey said, his voice suddenly deeper and harsher. "Mac, what you saw was a trick of your eyes."

"Yes, it was." Mackal's voice took on a strange, hollow docility.

"To be on the safe side, though, I'm probably going to have to consume you later," Carey said.

Dev was glad he was sitting, because he damn near fell over at that statement. Mackal just responded with a dull, "Alright, Sir," though.

"Good," Carey said. "I'm going back to the station. He's probably long gone by now, and I still haven't gotten around to rounding up Fiona for the mayor. Let's go."

"Yes, sir," Mackal said.

Dev listened to their footsteps recede, too scared to move. He had no idea what happened to Morgan two nights ago, no idea what the hell Carey had done or was going to do to Mackal, and didn't know anyone named "Fiona." However, he had met one other person with such a strong allergy to iron.

There would be time for speculation later. Right now, he needed to get as far away from the search area as possible and figure out how to find Morgan. He ran, staying low and keeping to the cover of bushes whenever possible.

Fifteen minutes of that winded him, but by then he could make out a dirt road ahead. He couldn't risk being seen on it, of course, but he could follow it back toward Morgan's house and maybe do some searching of his own. If her parents heard a horn, why wasn't anyone looking in the—

He stopped short and stared at the road. An elderly red Ford drove by, then stopped, reversed for twenty feet, and settled in on the shoulder where it was closest to him. There was only person in the entire county with a car like that, and her appearance here was as improbable as it was wonderful.

Dev dashed the last hundred yards to the car, which he was now sure was Aspasia. The 1995 Escort was roughly the same age as her owner and, like her, had the habit of periodically puffing a bit of smoke into the atmosphere while she idled.

"Ali!" he hissed when he reached Aspasia, huffing and puffing around the word.

"Hop in, dumbass," Ali said, turning to face him and stubbing out her cigarette.

He didn't need to be told twice. "How did you know?" he asked, shutting the car door behind him.

She gestured to the police scanner duct-taped under her glove box. With a hobby like hers, that thing occasionally came in handy.

"Damn . . . I'm famous, huh?" Dev said. "So how did you find me?"

"I always know where you are," she said, using the same tone of voice someone might use to explain a law of nature to a toddler. Her black lace-gloved hands danced across the wheel and gearshift, guiding Aspasia back out into the dirt road. Complementing the gloves were a long-sleeved black tunic, a black patent-leather skirt, black thigh-high stockings, and a silver locket around her neck. The overall effect was so striking that most people never noticed how little skin she actually showed. She never forgot her allergy, but she did her best to make sure everyone else did.

Dev sighed. He was probably never going to get a straight answer to that question. "I owe you one."

She shook her head, the motion making the locket around her neck sway and sending ripples through her crimson curls. Their color changed every few weeks at her whim, and Dev was one of the few people who remembered their natural shade of light brown. "You don't owe me a thing," she said, "and you know it. Now, where do you want me to stash you till they find out what really happened to her?"

"You don't need to stash me anywhere," Dev said. "The cops told everyone to search out here, but I heard Chief Carey say something about her being lured out of her house by a hunting horn in the middle of the night. That's damn strange, and I want to know why they're not having us search the hunting club instead of the mountains here. He also . . . I swear to God Carey said he was going to consume Mr. Mackal, and Mr. Mackal didn't even seem to react."

"He what?" Ali asked.

"Yeah, that was pretty much my reaction, too," Dev said, absently running his right hand over his head and enjoying the wind through his partially regrown buzzcut.

"I knew he was a fascist, but I hadn't pegged him as a cannibal," Ali said. "Or a hypnotist, for that matter. I think you're right about this being worth checking out." She flicked the turn signal to turn onto the state road that took them toward the hunting club and, if you kept driving for half an hour, the highway to Virginia. Aspasia signaled her assent by turning on the appropriate signal for once. "You think Carey's actually behind it?"

"No idea," Dev said, "but I'll clear my name faster if I can find out who is." A car appeared around a bend in front of them, and he ducked out of sight until it passed. "You know, you really shouldn't be seen with me now. Just drop me off and get moving. You never even liked her, anyway."

"Correct, but you suck at this. I'm going with you."

"I haven't even gotten started properly yet."

She sighed. "You went out on a search party and nearly ended up in jail. That's pretty much the definition of sucking."

"That wasn't my fault!"

"What's that?" She put her right hand up to her ear, then returned it to the stick shift. "I can't hear you over the sound of your massive sucking."

"Fine," Dev said. He never won these conversations. Something was bugging him about her movements, though. . . .

"Hey, Ali," Dev said. "Is there steel in that locket? I just noticed that you wince a little whenever it swings into your skin."

"Nah, it's silver, but it's a little thinner than the old brass one," Ali said, shifting into second while she spoke. "I feel the iron inside more." A nudge with her gloved hand and a slight jerk from the transmission and they were into third.

"You keep iron that close to your skin?" The touch of steel and other iron alloys always pained her, but nothing triggered her allergy like pure iron.

"It's an old keepsake," Ali said, keeping her eyes straight ahead on the road.

"Nothing can be that important," Dev said. "Why do you wear it if it hurts you?"

"You've got that backwards," Ali said. "It's only important because it hurts . . . surely you've noticed that about life. It can't possibly be important if you don't let it hurt you."

"Well, yes, but not generally in the physical sense."

"Generally not," Ali said, the corners of her lips curling into a smile. "I'm getting off easy."

"Heh, I never thought about it like that," Dev said.

Ali nodded, then flicked the turn signal to leave the main road and turn onto a small county road. This time, though, Aspasia signaled that she wanted to go in the direction of the highway.

Dev shook his head. "Aspasia wants to get out of here. She's probably right, at least as far as you're concerned."

"She's just going to have to suck it up," Ali said, "because we're going hunting."

They spent the rest of the short drive to the hunting club's main entrance in silence, for once not even punctuated by any snide remarks from Aspasia (or unpleasant clanking sounds, which amounted to the same thing from her). Ali pulled them up on the shoulder in front of the short dirt and gravel drive up to the Carter-era dirty beige trailer that served as the office for the small private preserve. "Something bugging you, Dev?"

He nodded. "I always thought hunting horns were used for horseback hunting, but it's all wooded hillsides in there. You can't ride anywhere."

"True enough. Whatever it was, though, it was probably coming from here. Where else would someone be blowing a hunting horn?"

"Is that what they're calling it in high school now?"

Ali smacked him on the arm and got out of the car. "Come on. I'd like to get this done before dark."

"OK," Dev said, grabbing a flashlight from the glovebox.

"Hey," she said, getting out of the car, "why do they think she left the house at night to meet with you?"

"Well, she had been known to do that," Dev said, blushing.

"I'm starting to see why you're a suspect," Ali said. "I take it you two are completely over, though?"

"Definitely. We haven't even spoken since she told me I was a lazy waste of space and never wanted to see me again."

Ali's eyes flashed. "You're not exactly making me want to find her, you know."

Dev opened his mouth to reply, but stopped and knelt to look at the ground, instead. "Ali? When did it last rain?"

"About two days ago. Why?"

He ran his fingers over the tire tracks. Bits of dirt crumbled off under his fingers, and his axe head pendant slipped out of his shirt when he leaned over. "These tire tracks are dry, but they look like they were made when this dirt was mud," Dev said, stuffing the wrought iron axe head pendant back into his shirt. A few pendants or keychains at the bottom of his friends' drawers were the only tangible remnants of his truncated attempt at crafting in Mr. Mackal's class.

She examined the ground. "Ooooh . . . smart. Those must have been made right around when she disappeared. I wish they'd taught us stuff like that in high school."

"They didn't teach us that at my school," Dev said. "I picked it up on my own, while I was teaching myself to hunt deer." His parents were rarely around for various reasons, and the local game wardens were more interested in the paychecks than the work itself. Deer hunting was a cheap and easy way to add a little food to the table. Learning to butcher them had been the hardest part, but (with plenty of help and terrible jokes from Ali) he'd figured it out eventually.

"Nice!"

Dev sighed and kept walking toward the trailer.

Ali followed him. "You think I'm patronizing you, don't you?"

"Aren't you?"

"No! I mean it!"

"That doesn't make it less patronizing."

"I don't know what else to do," Ali said, her normally bright brown eyes downcast and dark. "I can't fix it."

"You don't have to fix it," Dev said. As raw as this nerve was in him, he sometimes forgot it was worse for her.

"It was my fault!"

"It was my choice," Dev said.

"You chose wrong."

Dev shook his head and tried the trailer door. Locked, of course. "Ali, can you get this?"

She lifted up her skirt and pulled out a titanium pick set hidden in the inside lining. Dev looked away, but wasn't quite fast enough to avoid being flashed.

"You're too polite," she said, stepping past him to take a look at the door. She loved exploring abandoned factories and mines, and a set of lockpicks Dev had gotten her as a gag gift were now her favorite toys. He was always worried the police were going to catch her with them, so their hiding place underneath her patent leather skirt was a compromise for concealability on her part.

"You're the only person who's ever said that to me," Dev said, taking up a position between her and the street to block any possible clear view of her work.

"Does that mean you treat me differently or that I have low standards?" Ali asked.

"No comment."

"Clever boy." She switched picks. "Tough one, this. I'm glad there's no deadbolt." She fiddled it some more and was rewarded with a loud click. "There we go!"

"You're getting faster," Dev said.

"Thanks," Ali said, then gestured to the dark doorway. "After you."

Dev took a deep breath, flicked on the flashlight, and walked in, with Ali following at a safe distance. The door let in some light, and Dev's flashlight illuminated the remainder of the first room in the trailer. They didn't need to see more.

A pool of blood maybe three inches in diameter lay congealed on the floor. The large desk on the opposite wall looked to have been cleared hastily, and some more blood was on top of it. Binders and papers were strewn around the floor, giving the impression of a thrashing struggle.

Dev and Ali took in the room for a solid minute, neither saying a word. Then they looked at each other.

"Holy shit," Dev said.

Ali nodded. A second later, they heard the sound of hoofbeats coming up the drive.

"What the—" Dev began, but shut up when Ali raised her hand to silence him. She was nearer the door, so she poked her head around the frame to see who was outside, keeping low where she would be less noticeable.

She took only the briefest glance before launching herself back from the doorway. She was normally pale, but what little color she did have was now gone. "Not a horse. Not a horse. Not a horse," she said, grabbing Dev's hand and hauling him through the crime scene. "Back door!"

"What did you see?" Dev asked, allowing her to lead him into the back of the trailer. Somehow, the ordinariness of the second room made the situation worse. It was a simple sleeping area, with two cots and a small bookshelf, all with a tiny window to the outside. There was no door.

"Oh God," Ali said. "We're going to die."

Dev pulled out his pocket knife and flicked open the blade. It was only two inches long and perfectly legal, but it could still ruin someone's day. "What's out there, Ali?""

Before she could compose herself enough to answer, Mayor Vance stepped into the trailer. He was wearing a suit and tie, but sweat rolled down the short man's jowls like he'd just been running a race.

"What the hell are you?" she screamed at him.

"The same as you," he said. "Kneel, Devon, before your betters."

Devon dropped to his knees without a word, his eyes blank and docile.

Ali backed up against the bookshelf. "What have you done to him?"

"Gotten him out of our way," Vance said. "We have more important things to discuss. I appreciate him for leading you somewhere isolated that I happened to be monitoring, though. That will make the next step easier."

"So you can kill me like you did Morgan?" Ali asked.

"Morgan? We're saving her for you," Vance said, drawing a long, thin silver knife. "I meant so I could strip your false past away, Fiona. Have you ever wondered why you don't seem to make friends? We did that, my wife and I, to make removing you from this insect society easier when the time came."

"You . . ." Ali trailed off and sat down hard on the bed. Her whole life was swimming in her head.

Vance pricked his skin with the knife blade and said something in a language Ali had never heard before. "There we go," Vance said when he was done. "The peasant nursemaid you call 'mother' will have no memory of you, and neither will anyone else. Now, you must feel the power awakening within you, and the craving. Bury this in that human's heart and feast on his soul."


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About Steve Quinn

Steve Quinn is a lawyer by day. Usually. He does a lot of project management and some coding, too, and occasionally fixes his colleagues’ computers with a Sonic Screwdriver. When he’s not writing legal or computer code, he’s probably being hit with escrima sticks. He can be found online at https://www.steve-quinn.net or on Twitter @ScribblingSteve.