Counting money had never been a chore for Rex. Unlike numbers on a ledger or computer screen, this was something he could feel. Something he could smell. He made small piles. First thousands. Then tens of thousands. When he finally got up into six figures, the truth became crystal clear.
He had made it.
Rex had run the scenario before, thinking of ways to surprise his fragile family that lived in the small apartment above the shop. He could plan now. A casual announcement of a trip whose destination would be a home with no shared walls and plenty of space. Private rooms for Franny and Holden. A suite for his mother, complete with the largest television he could find. She would weep with joy. The pale gray of her skin would eventually welcome sunshine and relaxation.
Franny would hug him and run from room to room, announcing each wonder as she found them. Holden would try and keep his cool but he would eventually join in, melting from the grown-up role he had inherited to the boyhood that he deserved. There would be grass outside, acres of grass, bordered by trees, and flowers and nature.
Rex told himself that these things were to fill a void in their young lives, but in the quiet part of him that knew the deeper truth, it was for him. It was a part of life that he had never had. He would be able to experience that joy through them in the same way that a prisoner watches a sparrow fly. The thought reminded him that he was no saint, he was damaged goods. He wasn’t anywhere near a mid-life crisis but, like the pawned items that filled the cases out front, the chips and cracks and defects would never be restored to newness. Rex could feel the glow of innocence, but only secondhand. Franny and Holden would know it completely.
The electronic beam in the front of the store chirped. Rex glanced at the closed circuit monitor across the room. A woman had entered the store. Young. A cotton sweatshirt beneath her leather jacket concealed further identity.
Rex quickly scooped up the stacks of bills, shoving them into the heavy safe to his right. He would have to start his count again. He thrilled at the thought of the bills and the happiness they held. Swinging the safe shut, he spun the tumblers and locked his happiness away.
Stepping out into the storefront area, the first thing that Rex noticed was her eyes. This wasn’t unusual, he often noted a person’s eyes first. They usually told a better story than any words that might come out of their mouth. But these eyes were spectacular. They were a deep golden color, lighter on the outside and merging to a fiery orange at the pupils. They were also larger than average, especially against the small, pale face. Unlike many eyes that entered his shop, they made no effort to appear interested in the items that filled the cases or hung on the walls. Their gaze settled on him as he emerged, taking an inventory of their own.
“I wasn’t sure that you were open.”
Her voice had a slight accent. Rex couldn’t place it. But, it was clear she wasn’t a native to New York or the surrounding boroughs. She pushed the sweater hood back. Dark hair appeared in a riot of curls.
“We don’t keep regular hours,” Rex explained, noting the backpack that the girl carried. A seller. Without a doubt.
“Neither do I,” the girl countered. She lifted the backpack onto the counter between them. “You buy things, correct?”
“I loan money based on collateral. I hold it for 90 days. If you come back for it, you can buy it back for the amount plus interest. You don’t come back, I have the option to sell it.”
The girl looked around at the cases of items.
“Does anybody ever come back?”
Rex could smell her. Cinnamon. Something else he couldn’t place.
The girl pulled her leather jacket off, draping it across the counter. “It’s boiling in here. You like it this hot?”
Rex started to speak as she pulled the sweatshirt off as well. The action lifted her t-shirt beneath, sliding it a few inches up her body until Rex could just make out the bottom curve of her breast. With the sweater free, she pulled the t-shirt down, hiding the flawless skin beneath it.
Rex cleared his throat.
“Is there something you’re looking for?”
The girl smiled, grabbing for the backpack and digging inside. “I have something for you.”
The T-shirt had short sleeves. Pale arms. Free of marks. A lot of those who came into the shop fitting the girl’s demographic were looking to support a drug habit. Rex had someone bring in a microwave while it still had their forgotten lunch inside. She didn’t fit the profile.
The girl withdrew a rectangular tin box. It had once been painted an olive green but the paint was worn and chipped, reducing the color to a mottled gray.
“Tell me if you’ve seen one of these before.”
Opening the lid revealed a human hand. The flesh had dried over time, becoming the shriveled color of a raisin. The area around the nails had retracted, giving them the appearance of being long and claw-like. The girl, without reservation, lifted the severed hand from the box and placed it on the glass counter.
Rex studied the grisly trophy.
“Not what I was expecting.”
The girl was smiling, reaching into the box again.
“It’s a complete set, too.”
From within she pulled a misshapen yellow candle and placed one end into the hollow formed by the hand’s palm. A thin wick waited on top, looking like a gruesome cake for a cannibal’s birthday. The girl was searching the pockets of her jeans. They were tight enough that Rex could see she would find nothing.
“Do you have a light?”
Her tone was casual. Rex just stared at the withered hand on the counter.
“I don’t really deal in this kind of thing.”
This wasn’t completely true. In his business away from the storefront, Rex had acquired items for clients that ranged from a rare, earless monitor lizard to a human liver for a desperate transplant patient.
The girl smiled again. “Do you know what this is?”
Rex touched one of the upturned fingers. The skin was hard with age.
“A human hand.”
She leaned toward Rex as if the pawnshop was packed with eavesdroppers.
“You don’t have a lighter? A match?”
Rex walked to a case nearby. Inside sat a collection of used Zippo lighters. He pulled one out that had an American Eagle etched into the surface. With a deft flip, a flame sprang to life. He snapped the cover closed and handed the lighter to the girl.
Flipping the lighter open again, the girl thumbed the wheel and brought the flame toward the candle—
“This is the hand of a thief. They cut it off after his neck was broken on the gallows in the 1700’s. A public hanging. The candle is rendered from the fat of the that very same unlucky man.”
The flame lit the waiting wick.
“The wick is woven from his hair.”
Rex watched the flame burn. It reflected deep in the girl’s golden eyes. She was watching him. With a smile, she whispered once more.
“The Hand of Glory.”
Suddenly the world closed in on Rex. His vision narrowed and the world spun. The last sound he registered was the crack of his head on the tile floor.
A high-pitched whining filled the world. It accompanied the pain. It seemed that a million voices held a million conversations, narrowing down until only one sound could be heard.
Rex sat up. The light outside the pawnshop windows told him that hours had passed. Framed in the overbearing sunlight was a thin, aging man. Even in silhouette, Rex knew who it was.
On the counter nearby sat the withered hand. The Hand of Glory, she had said. The candle it once held was reduced to a puddle that overflowed the palm, spilling onto the glass countertop. The knocking came again. Rex stood, his legs weak, and lurched to the door, opening it for the thin man.
“Almost nine thirty, Rex. I’ve been banging for half an hour.”
Crebbs came inside as if he owned the place. Several of the items within the cases had actually been his once. He meant to add to them.
Rex felt disoriented. He hung on to the door knob for support.“What time did you say it was?”
“Half past nine, Poor customer service, Rex,” Crebbs said, shaking his head.
The thin man held up a gleaming watch. He spoke like a proud parent introducing his straight A student.
“Rolex Yacht Master.”
Rex’s instincts kicked in. The watch was a fake, the face too wide for an actual Yacht Master. He knew that he’d give Crebbs money anyway.
Rex straightened up.
A surplus of contained hope suddenly soured in his stomach, a voice screaming in his brain—
Running to the back, Rex struck his hip on a glass display case. The contents inside scattered and the withered hand rocked, threatening to fall. . Rex ran into the doorway to the back as well, like a human pinball until he came to a stop, staring—
The safe hung open. Its interior screamed at Rex, violated and empty. His fortune was gone along with the dreams he had for his family upstairs.
“Back to square one,” the voice laughed in Rex’s head.
If Rex had been the crying type, he would have covered the floor in tears.
But, Rex was the get even type.
Crebbs heard a roar of anger from the back room. He hesitated, thinking of the rental time the watch might allow him on his favorite bar stool. He stared down at the mummified hand on the countertop.
Better come back later.
Crebbs fled through the front door.
In the back, Rex picked up his phone.