Earthy scents of sandalwood and spices wafted from the shelves. The heady odors clawed into her nostrils and down her throat. She coughed and blinked away tears blurring her view of the storage room. A fluorescent bulb flickered overhead, threatening to join its dead twin.
Rory’s voice echoed from the bend in the corridor. “Watch your step. It gets dark back here.”
Birch crates and cardboard boxes jutted out in errant patterns, narrowing the passageway. Laina squeezed sideways past a barrel of newsprint-wrapped poles. Skittering noises whipped her attention to the the shelf behind her head. Her shoulder brushed a a coil of rope and it tumbled onto her arms in a writhing tangle. She shook it off her trembling limbs.
“If something falls, we’ll get it. Don’t worry.” Rory said, “Just a little further.”
Laina rounded the corner to a vast warehouse. Rust-scarred shipping compartments hugged the corrugated walls. Dusty wooden crates surrounded the far corner in an igloo formation. A faint glow seeped from a single, five-foot opening in its makeshift wall.
“This is so much bigger than it looks. I didn’t know there were any warehouses in this district.” Laina slowed her pace as she neared the doorway. “Rory?”
She peered into the crate-igloo. A Victorian gas lamp shed amber light across a roll-top desk. Papers blanketed the work surface. Ribbons dangled from scrolls filling its nooks. Laina approached the desk and laid her hand on the back of the chair. Shuffling at the crates startled her and she whirled around.
“I’ve got it.” Rory emerged from the shadows, carrying an ebony trunk the size of a hat box. He settled into the chair and placed the box on the desk. Iron brackets secured four leather straps around the exterior, one in each direction.
As he unlatched the hasps, Laina pointed to red symbols dotting the lacquered surface. “What do those mean?”
“Warnings to the careless user, I suppose.” Rory shrugged. “Some ancient literature suggests amulets were only to be worn by the intended recipient. Painting a curse on the box acted like a psycho-suggestive security system.”
“Curse?” Laina took a step back. “How is this what I need to protect myself?”
“Whether you’re cursed or not depends on you. If you don’t let the superstition freak you out, you should be fine. Worry is the real curse, if you ask me.” He stood and lifted the shimmering amulet from its purple silk bedding. An serpent-green gem flashed in the center of a star-shaped setting. Jade, ebony, and diamond beads filled the six points darting from the ten carat stone. Intricate silver filigree held the stone to the chain and setting.
“It’s amazing. So beautiful.” Various shades of green glinted in the sparse lighting.
He looped the silver chain over her head. “It’s so you.”
“I still don’t see how this works. And I’m not sure I can afford it.” A prick stung the back of her neck. She scratched at the spot, and lifted the chain to remove it.
“Not by our museum rates, you couldn’t. The dragon-eye amulet acts as a repelling force, like a lightning rod to protect the wearer from the terrors of darkness. We’d tell curators this artifact is priceless. Of course, everything has its price.” He straightened the medallion back in place around her neck and winked. “Since it could change your life, I’d rather not see it go to some museum. I’d give you a discount.”
“What kind of discount?” As the amulet lay against her chest, its weight felt familiar. As if it belonged there somehow.
“How’s a hundred bucks?” He plucked a receipt pad from one of the document piles on the desk. “I have to get your phone number to activate the VIP discount.”
“Done.” She traced the beaded edges with her fingertip. What amazing luck.
As Rory led her back through the corridor to the store register, he repeated the compliment about the necklace flattering her eyes. She tuned him out, focusing on the rhythmic pat of the stone against her chest as she strode.
His voice deepened to a growl. “I’m coming after you.”
She recoiled, knocking over a bin filled with myrrh incense. “What?”
Holding the curtain of ribbons aside, he tilted his head. “I said, ‘After you.’ Did I offend your feminist principles or is chivalry such a shock?”
She cleared her throat and walked past him into the shop. “The second one. I know an artist who set an actual grave marker for chivalry on the corner of Fifth and Main.”
“That so?” Rory shook his head as he strode to the counter. “Well, if I promise to place flowers on the grave, can I give you a call sometime?”
“If I’m impervious to the terrors of darkness, why not?” Laina forced her tightened lips into smile and scrawled her phone number on the receipt pad. “I’d appreciate any research you can dig up on this artifact, too.”
“Sure. I’d be glad to.” He returned her card and glanced at the window. “Guess you don’t need that umbrella. Amulet must work on the weather, too.”
She followed his gaze to the dry panes, which showed no evidence of the recent storm. “How about that. The rain stopped.”
Rory walked her to the door, shop keys jangling in his hand. He held open the door for her and his voice slowed to a strange, warped tone. “Don’t be afraid.”
She blinked at him.
He stuck the keys into the door and spoke normally. “I have to lock up behind you, so it’s not about chivalry this time.”
She managed a chuckle. “Thanks. I’ll have to work on getting shocked so easily.”
After they exchanged good-nights, she turned into the howling wind of the dark street and wondered what sort of night it would prove to be.
“Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you” (Deuteronomy 6:13-14).