Lucy, her housekeeper, accountant, sometime partner in crime, and longtime friend greeted her as she strolled into the master bedroom. “There’s a lovely exhibit down in Manhattan I thought you’d like to see.” Ruthlessly, the curtains on the four-poster bed were shoved back, followed by the curtains on the windows.
Sunlight hit Amanda’s face and she yawned hugely as she sat up in bed. Stripping off the sleep mask she’d worn, she calculated it was roughly two o’clock in the afternoon, and that Lucy was far too cheerful for a woman nearing sixty. Coffee was promptly, but carefully, shoved into Amanda’s right hand and a catalog dropped into her lap.
On the cover was a bracelet she hadn’t seen in almost fifty years. Amanda’s heart tripped; she’d hoped the damned thing was locked up in a vault somewhere. “Lucy, Manhattan’s terrible traffic, and you know I hate taking taxis.”
Startled, Lucy looked at her. “You’re going to turn down a chance to steal a piece of history? Are you ill?”
“No, Lucy.” Almost blindly, Amanda took a sip of coffee and swallowed hard. “Just practical. That thing--” she shuddered. “I stole it once already. It tried to eat my arm.”
Lucy pulled the catalog back. “Well, then, I’ll just cancel the plane tickets.”
“No, that’s all right,” Amanda told her. “It’s been a while since we said hello to Connor and asked if we were still on the invitation list for his annual party.”
“Oh, yes, is it that time of year, isn’t it?” Lucy looked pleased. “Let me finish making the arrangements.” She dropped the catalog on the edge of the bed, letting it fall “accidentally” open.
“You do that,” Amanda agreed, sipping coffee, and tried not to remember the first time she’d ever heard of something called a Witchblade.
The office was in an unremarkable building in the edge of the Parisian business district, and that edge was tilting towards the low-rent side. It was small; a sign on the receptionist's overly neat desk said she was out to lunch. Amanda's heels echoed on the scarred hardwood floor, and she wrinkled her nose at the smell of cologne mixed with cigarette smoke. "Hello, Mr. Irons?"
"Ah, yes." He stepped out from a room immediately to her left, one she'd assumed was a closet. Something about the way he looked at her unnerved her; he reminded her a little too much of some German soldiers she'd once met.
Still she smiled and extended her hand for a handshake. “I’m Amanda. I understand you’re looking for someone who can acquire items discreetly.”
He gestured for her to enter the room he’d just exited. It wasn’t much bigger than a closet, just large enough for a massive teakwood desk, a small but well-stocked bookshelf, and a high-backed leather chair. The single guest chair was battered and one plank was missing out of the back side. There was not much room to maneuver around all the furniture.
“My apologies,” Mr. Irons told her. “My office is still in the process of some renovations. Please, sit. May I offer you a drink?” He stared at her as if he could see through the dress she wore.
Somehow, the leering made her relax. Being aware of her own beauty was something she’d never taken for granted, but the sheer predictability of his reaction made her smile, sit down on the chair, taking the time to lean over just slightly as she smoothed out the invisible wrinkles of her dress. The chair wobbled, but long practice of having to balance on a high wire let her shift her weight smoothly to counterbalance it.
“No, thank you,” she refused the beverage offer. “I’m afraid it’s too early in the afternoon for me.”
He made a show of checking his watch. “Oh, of course it is. You must have just had lunch.” He seated himself. “I’m a collector of the rare and unusual. I was referred to you by a colleague of yours, a Remy Marin I believe his name was.”
“Remy died two days ago.” Amanda’s voice was flat. Something about the way Irons spoke just plain bothered her. He was too polished, too smooth.
Iron’s face remained expressionless even as he said, “Really? I hadn’t heard. I’m sorry for the loss of your friend.”
I’m sure you are, Amanda thought. I’m sure you were sorry to have to make him disappear. Of all the times in the world for me to be in Paris without a single friend in town I could borrow from for a little while. Mentally, Amanda swore. She needed money to get her battered airplane fixed and fueled if she wanted to get to U.S.; it was faster than taking a ship, and she’d been in Paris a bit too long for her taste. The cops were starting to look altogether too familiar.
Unfortunately, that meant this was the best offer she’d had in two weeks. She could dip into her rainy day fund to get fuel, but the plane itself hadn’t been quite the same since the war ended, and needed some work. She had convinced the mechanic to trade out the repair for sex, but he’d wanted money for the parts, and that wasn’t something she had a lot of these days.
Her expression betrayed nothing of her inner debate, however. “Tell me what the job is.”
“There’s a bracelet in the safe at this house,” Irons said, passing over an envelope. “Take only that bracelet, leave everything else behind. There’s payment in the envelope. You get half now, half when you deliver the bracelet.”
Amanda peeked inside the envelope. Inside was a check from a Vorslag Industries, signed by a Kenneth Irons, to Amanda Darrieux for more francs than she’d seen in a very long time. Still, Amanda demanded more, just to see if she could get more.
“Take it or leave it,” Irons insisted. “Oh, and don’t bother trying to forge another check; you’ll only embarrass yourself and join your friend. What was his name again? Oh yes, Remy.”
He rose. “You have forty-eight hours to retrieve the bracelet and bring it back to me, here.”
Amanda stood. “And if I were to refuse right now?”
Irons smiled coldly. “Well, I’d just have to make sure you don’t remember this conversation.”
Somehow, Amanda was sure she wasn’t going to get paid to forget. She wasn’t about to reveal it to Irons, but she’d run up a few extra expenses in the last several months, and needed the money. She plastered a smile on her face. “Well, then, I’ll just be sure to deliver.”
Getting into the house had been the easy part; getting out with it had required a little more finesse, but Amanda never counted the times she’d been nearly caught at her own game.
She was on her way back to the office when she felt something snakelike grab hold of her wrist. Startled, she pulled away from the main road and into an alley where she could see what was happening without attracting undue attention. To her surprise, the bracelet was now on her wrist.
“What the hell?” she exclaimed. She could have sworn she’d wrapped it up securely in her bag.
That was when she felt a sharp poke at her wrist. Glancing down, she saw the bracelet change shape, dig down into her skin. Immortal healing flared into action even as she registered the pain. The bracelet seemed to hesitate before shifting into a more cohesive sleeve of reptilian skin.
I can give you power beyond your dreams, it said in her mind. You will be strong forever. You didn’t bargain enough for me; I am worth more than you know. Wear me, be mine.
Amanda didn’t trust anything that could speak directly and pipe images of strong women on battlefields into her head, no matter what it was. She knew enough of magic – and of magic tricks –to be sure this wasn’t an illusion. “I already am strong forever,” she told it firmly. Something made her add, “Idiot.”
You refused! You must be destroyed, it snarled, and promptly clamped down on her arm, shifting shape into a more familiar looking iron gauntlet.
Amanda swore; the sight of the gauntlet caused her to flash back on her language and she swore in Old English mixed with Latin, a corruption of an ancient Catholic prayer long forgotten until now. For a long moment, she was certain the gauntlet was going to squeeze her arm until it shattered; she could feel her arm going numb as the bones fractured. Blood pooled over the metal and dripped down her elbow. Lightning crackled and sparked under the metal as her quickening healed the damage. Then the gauntlet changed shape, became an innocuous bracelet again, and dropped to the ground.
She stared at it, wondering if it was safe to pick up. She could always flee France, claim she’d never seen Irons before should he come looking, but something told her it wasn’t going to be that easy. Her left arm was sore despite the healing.
The bracelet glittered on the ground.
“Look, if you promise not to try to eat my arm again, I’ll get you to someone who wants you,” she told it finally.
It lay there, waiting, silent.
She started at it a minute longer, then knelt, hiked up her skirt, and took out the knife she kept sheathed in her garter and used it to gingerly replace the bracelet back in her bag.
A glance around the alley confirmed that there was no one to see anything. She tucked the knife back in its place, then quickly made her way over to the office to make her delivery. She wanted this thing gone.
“As promised,” she told Irons, and placed the bracelet on the desk in front of him.
He inclined his head. “Thank you. You are as efficient as I was told. There is an envelope on the receptionist’s desk for you; please pick it up as you leave.”
“I would appreciate it if you did not contact me again,” she told him coolly.
His smile widened like a shark’s. “I wondered if the Witchblade would test you. Tell me, did you like wearing it? It is a rather beautiful bracelet.”
“Perhaps you’ll find someone who finds it more so than I. I’m afraid it wasn’t quite the right fit,” Amanda replied. “Good day, Mr. Irons.”
“And yet you still have your arm,” he mused, half to himself. He shook himself, then looked at Amanda. “Good day, Ms. Darrieux.”
Aware he was watching her leave, Amanda tried not to let it appear as if she was rushing out the door. She stopped at the receptionist’s desk and picked up the envelope, verified the check was signed, and then headed out to the nearest bank to cash out the check. The sooner she got the hell out here, the better, she decided. Irons could have the damned thing, whatever it was, so long as she never came near it again.
“You’re not dressed yet,” Lucy chided her. “Our flights leave in an hour.” The heavy-set, gray-haired woman bustled about her, pulling out clothes from the closet and making the bed so that Amanda was forced to get up and take the catalog with her.
Decidedly, Amanda tossed the catalog into the bedside trash can. The world was welcome to admire the Witchblade; Amanda had had her fill. “You’d have made a great lady’s maid, Lucy,” she told her companion as she stood and admired the choices Lucy had made, putting her mind firmly back in the present.
Lucy preened, as Amanda knew she would, and started going over their itinerary as Amanda got dressed. It was going to be a fun trip to New York.