Merri sat at her vanity mirror, studying the woman in there who brushed dry a length of chestnut hair. She was a lovely enough creature, one supposed, could certainly be likened so if anything like human emotion enlivened her features, which at that moment were like nothing so much as inanimate porcelain. Still, there was a blessing in the numbness and she was grateful for it.
She’d had quite a variety of pain to divert her in the past 48 hours. Enough trouble, enough heartache.
The scientist in her was already at work identifying the steps which had been taken, the choices made, analyzing the results of each of the processes, looking for changes to make in the event there ever would be a “next time,” At the moment Merri very much doubted there would be, though she dimly recalled making that promise once before, when Gavin had simply disappeared, after the fire in their home and the subsequent death of their child. Scientific method meant little to the heart, it seemed, which had its own agenda, one her mind was not permitted to know…
The heavy knocking on the front door disturbed her reverie. Merri breathed a sigh of relief — she truly did not wish to endure another repetition of her personal recriminations — but her eyes widened at Esther’s subsequent and somewhat muffled scream. She grabbed her little rat-crafted derringer and raced to the stairs, nearly running over her housekeeper in the process.
“Clay men!” Esther gasped, clutching the front of Merri’s dayrobe. “With hammers, my lady! They’re asking for you! Shall I send Jim to the precinct?”
Clay men? “No. Take Harry and the other staff to the back of the house and stay there until I call for you. By no means are any of you to interfere — and if that means you have to sit on Harry to keep him out of this, then do it!”
“Yes, my lady…” Merri barely waited to hear the words though. She ran down to the first landing, then composed herself most carefully to descend to the foyer and the front door. Esther hadn’t let them in, of course; Merri concealed the little gun in her pocket (it would do almost nothing in her defense, but shooting it would certainly alert the neighbors) and went to face her visitors.
She sensed almost as soon as she saw them that these were not actually Clay Men. She hardly knew how she knew it, but her recent work in Watchmaker’s Hill had given her something of an instinct for it. Something was missing from these ambling mounds of earth and stone. These were of the Unfinished.
“Good day,” she told them, taking in their heavy, well-used hammers with a single glance. They were almost twice as tall as she, and far, far bulkier. “I’m Merriwether Fawkes. How may I help you?”
They glanced at each other before one spoke. “We’ve come for the box,” he said, voice sounding like boulders rubbing together.
Merri lifted her eyebrows delicately. “Which box would that be?”
Another shared glance. “You know which box. It ain’t yours. We’ve come to claim it.”
“I see.” She took a half-step back, having fought Unfinished Men several times (most recently in tracking one down as a host for Jack-of-Smiles) and knew that she could not fight two of them and hope to live through the experience. “Are you acting on behalf of its owner?”
Yet a third glance. “We didn’t come here to be questioned,” the other one said, finally speaking up. His voice wasn’t any pleasanter than the first’s. “We came here to get the box. You can hand it over, or we can beat you to death then tear this house apart for it.”
They seemed to be rather eager for that particular outcome, Merri noted. She, however, was a great deal less eager for it, having been an unwilling custodian of the Iron Box, and, in any event, more than willing to reduce the amount of trouble in her life.
“You will tell whomever has sent you that I didn’t want the damned thing to begin with,” she said, moving to ring the bell that would summon Esther. “I’ll have it fetched, it’s quite heavy. Take it and I wish you — and whomever sent you — joy of it.”
The two exchanged another glance, this one openly glum. “Well, if you’re gonna be that way about it,” the first speaker sighed. “I suppose.”
Esther crept into the foyer as if terrified at what she might see. Her relief at seeing her mistress whole and unharmed was nearly more than she could bear, apparently. Merri hoped the overwhelm was caused by happiness, but did not ask. She instructed Esther to have her nephews retrieve the box and hand it over to their visitors. “Under no circumstances are they to speak to these men or provoke them in anyway. Make sure they understand this.”
“I’ll see to it, my lady,” Esther nodded, still frightened but able to function in the well-worn harness of obedience. “You might have a word with Mr. Harry, my lady. He’s been cursing up a storm in the kitchens, trying to get to you.”
For the first time that morning, Merri smiled. “I will. Thank you, Esther.”
It was only as she exited her home later that day that she realized the troubles related to the Iron Box were not yet over. “Special Constables” lingered about in plainclothes — the strength of their moustaches always gave them away — in greater numbers than she’d ever seen them, all watching the house and its surrounds.
Merri clenched her jaw, but continued walking. She was due at the Shuttered Palace — let them follow her there, if they would. She doubted any of them would gain entreé, moustaches or no.