Ashen clouds rumbled warnings overhead as its audience of street traffic and pedestrians dwindled. Laina squinted against a damp gust tainted with smog. A man bumped against her shoulder as he brushed past her on the sidewalk. She glanced back, patting her purse and pockets–everything still in place.
His trench coat swung around his elfishly slight frame as he turned and tipped his fedora. He dipped his chin and spoke with an Asian-seasoned chop. “So sorry.”
Laina raised her hand to excuse him, but he hurried off into the night. Her watch gleamed from its proper place on her wrist. Eight forty-three. Perhaps he was late to a nine o’clock gala. Like one of Jayme’s fairy tale events. As she resumed her stroll toward the apartment building, thrashing erupted beside her. A furry mass emerged from a trash bin and thudded onto the sidewalk. Hairless tail slithering behind, it scurried under a parked van.
Laina quickened her step. All her stories involved rats instead of shining armor.
An icy drop needled through a gap between her scarf and collar to bite her neck. Another hit the top of her head. Freezing rain pelted without mercy. Cowering under her handbag, she raced into the nearest shop.
Brass sleigh bells jingled from the push bar. Warm scents of floral tea and incense enveloped her as she entered the rosy lighting of the curio shop. She fished a pack of tissues from her bag and blotted her clammy face.
“Caught in the rain?” A twenty-something man with almond-shaped eyes rounded the counter.
She shrugged. “Forgot my umbrella, so it had to rain. I think it’s a law of physics.”
He smiled. “I’ll go with that. Never been much of a science or math guy. I believe people can create their own laws of physics.” He pointed to a barrel next to the register as he approached her. “We have plenty of umbrellas.”
“No science or math?” She sidled between a marble gin statue and a bronze foo dog and stammered. “I mean, you must be into antiquities . . . or archaeology, or something, if this is your shop.”
“Philosophy.” He paused next to a funerary urn a few feet away and put a hand on his hip. “Not the Chinese stereotype. Surprise.”
Laina tucked a dripping ringlet behind her ear and cleared her throat. “I, uh, I’m sorry–”
He waved her off and chuckled. “Relax. I’m not that easily offended. Just having a little fun with you. Call me Rory.”
“Laina.” She accepted his handshake and studied the gentle angle of his cinnamon-hued eyes.
Though his hands weren’t large, he wrapped both palms over her fingers, melting the chill away from them. “Looking for something special, or just trying to warm up, then?”
“Huh?” She withdrew her hand. Raising her chin, she pointed at him. “Messing with me again. You make all your customers uncomfortable? This can’t be good for business.”
“Sorry. My father only asks me to watch his shop as a last resort. I get bored by the end of the night. Sometimes that leads to teasing the shoppers.” He tilted his head. “Hope I didn’t chase you off.”
“I think my sister mentioned this store.” Laina surveyed the cluttered shelves. Among the customary oil lamps and blue ceramic ware, thousands of curious items awaited their buyers. Dragons and hair-plumed helmets. Trunks and ancient weaponry. “But if you’re closing, I doubt there’s time to look around.”
“Take your time.” He stretched his hands to his sides. “Seriously, just ask if there’s something you need.”
A glint drew her attention to the shelf beside him. She reached past his elbow and opened a glass box.”I am looking for something, actually.” A steel dagger rested on a velvet pillow inside. She traced the embossed handle with her fingertip. “Self-protection.”
Rory reached into the box without brushing her hand and drew out the item’s tag. “Sixteenth century Indian Kattar. Excellent taste in weaponry. Only five thousand.”
“Dollars?” Laina jerked back her hand and stuffed it into her damp pocket. “I’m more interested in your mediocre weaponry, then. But I’m not really a gun person.”
“If you’re not up to shooting, are you really gonna slash someone’s throat?” He shook his head. “I think you’d be better off with another sort of defense.”
Laina widened her stance and folded her arms. “I’m probably setting myself up here, but I’ll ask. What?”
Beckoning with a finger, he turned and headed toward the shop’s back corner. “I think we might have just the thing. Came in last night. We haven’t put it out on the floor or set its price yet.”
Jeweled eyes set in the statues of soldiers and Chinese dragons seemed to glare at her as she followed the shopkeeper’s son. He ducked through a curtain of wide, black ribbons. Above the doorway’s “No Admittance” sign, bones arched from a set of four talons to a shoulder-like socket.
Laina inhaled a deep draft of the musty, oil-saturated air, sorting what deserved her fear. Evil hands slayed her neighbors, not some mythical dragon. Laina adjusted her purse strap on her shoulder and plunged through the veil to see what the forbidden room held for her.