The doorbell sang out its soft tinkle as the shopkeep shuffled to place his new product on the shelves behind him. He slipped old worn boxes and small leather clutches with frayed edges into the various cubbies that covered the wall behind the shop’s small counter. Bifocals here, trifocals there, red boxes, blue boxes, brown pouches, and cases that were the faded gray of granite. He hummed tunelessly along with the shop’s crackly radio as he worked.
The spectacle shop was old, long, and narrow, with a glass front and a small thin door that opened onto a somewhat busy avenue in the antiques district on the South side of Lovat. It was a quiet enough area, away from the rougher warrens, but not particularly elevated. Across the cramped street hawkers sold vases, while up the road outside a rug merchant’s shop a man sold antique suits. There was also Dubois’ new storefront to the East; he dealt in religious artifacts and trinkets. The shopkeep hadn’t liked when he had moved in; it had somehow changed the feel of the warren. Odd folks had started showing up shortly after Saint Olmstead Religious Antiques opened: black-clad priests, Hasturians in yellow robes, and a few Deeper cultists dressed in their gray sackcloth rags. It had set the entire warren on edge.
The optics shop had been a hand-me-down from the shopkeep’s father. By rights it should have belonged to one of his older brothers, but his father had chosen to skip tradition and had given the shop to him. Why he, a middle son of the brood, had come to inherit the old optical shop he would never fully understand.
“You have a good head on your shoulders. Not like those worthless ingrates you call your brothers,” his father had declared. It hadn’t been much of an answer, yet he had been grateful for the responsibility. He had many children of his own and the shop brought in a modest income with little effort on his part. He and his expansive family were quite comfortable—not rich, but comfortable.
It had always amused the shopkeep that he dealt in spectacles. He had never been particularly interested by the human fabrications. His own kind had keen eyes that didn’t fade with age. It was almost comical: an anur dealing spectacles. His father had loved the little contraptions of glass and metal. He treated each like a precious gem, even if the old fellow couldn’t wear a pair himself. He would go on and on about the styles, explain how glass could be ground into various concave shapes to readjust a human’s vision, and he was also known to speak at length about proper fitting.
The shopkeep chuckled to himself. Even now, when visiting his father in the convalescent home, the old anur would spend more time inquiring into the shop’s latest procurements than asking about his numerous grandchildren.
“I’ll be right with you. Just putting away some product,” the shopkeep said to the newly-arrived customer. He could hear the footsteps slow behind him. He slid a boxed pair of single focus lenses onto a shelf with some others, listening to the muffled footsteps of his latest customer cross from the wood floor near the door to the soft carpet that covered most of the shop’s floor. The radio continued its crackly cadence adding a little bit of noise to what would otherwise be an eerily silent shop.
The selection from the caravan master had been varied. Lots of unique prescriptions, a few odd styles, and a pair of browlines that were in near perfect condition. Browlines had fallen out of style decades earlier, but the shopkeep had a particular client who preferred them. This pair would fetch nearly triple what he had paid.
He had always felt that his shop was a necessity for the races of Lovat. While his own kind didn’t suffer fading eyesight the city was full of humans, dimanians, dauger, and maero who all had the need for spectacles. The multileveled city was crawling with the dim-eyed, and unless you were flush with coin and lived in the elevated levels, finding an eye doctor—let alone a manufacturer of spectacles—was nearly impossible. That’s where Russel & Sons Optics, Maynard Avenue, Fourth Level, South Lovat stepped in.
“Sorry for the delay,” apologized the shopkeep, shifting around to look at his customer. “Now, what can I do for you?”
He blinked his bulbous eyes and distractedly scratched behind one, a nervous tick he had developed over years of haggling. Waldo had always called it his “tell.”
“I can always tell when you’re going to try to screw me,” the caravan master would say with a laugh. “You scratch behind your left eye. Then you lowball me.”
“I do not,” he would declare.
“You do so, and that skin of yours darkens a deep gray-green. Like an anur blush.”
Waldo was right, of course. The shopkeep knew it, but his tick was all for naught. His shop was empty.
Bizarre. He could have sworn he heard someone enter even as Wal had left. The bell had rang out, hadn’t it?
The shopkeep looked around the small space, turning his gaze left and right, his wide frown deepening. It was midday and the shop was shadowed and dark, the small lamps on the ceiling providing little light among the dark wood shelves that lined the walls floor to ceiling. Hundreds of precious pairs of eyeglasses filled cubbies all around him, each labeled in the shopkeep’s meticulous hand, but there was no one to be seen.
Outside gray streaks of rain cascaded down in sheets from the streets above, their colors shifting as they passed in front of the sodium and neon lights that lit Maynard Avenue. Pedestrians moved past the glass front, collars turned up, hats pulled low, papers tucked under their arms. Steam rose from the streets below. It looked downright miserable and cold. But this deep in Lovat it was always cold.
The crackle of the radio faded as another song came on; a wail from ages past sung by what sounded like a maero voice. The voice rasped though the speaker, filling the shop. Low and rumbly, a tune about a summer long since past, before the stars had been right, before the earth had changed.
The shopkeep shrugged at his empty shop and settled his thick body on a stool behind the counter. He read his newspaper and sipped at his chicory with wet slurps. It was dull, but it passed the time.
He was halfway into an article about new construction approved for Holgate Hill when he felt the eerie sensation of being watched. He looked up from his paper.
A shadow stood across from him. It was both opaque and transparent at the same time, seemingly there and not, vaguely human in form, and female. He could recognize the curve of hips and the swell of breasts in the shadow, but it was hardly discernible.
He half fell, half slipped off his stool in surprise, crumpling to the floor before shakily rising, his back pressed to the cubbyholes as he held his paper out before him like a shield. The shadow turned its head slowly, studying him. Eyes that glowed like coals stared at him from within black pits.
The shopkeep had only seen a few umbras in his life. Their kind usually hung out in the warrens to the North or could be seen in rougher cities like Destiny in the South. They were a rare sight in Lovat. Those he had seen usually wrapped themselves in multiple layers of clothing to make their forms as discernible as possible. It was considered more polite. Openly flaunting their forms like this one was threatening behavior.
The shopkeep’s hands shook; the loose curtains of skin that hung from his chin quavered. He yelped in surprise. One moment the umbra was on the other side of the counter and the next she was atop it. If she had moved the shopkeep didn’t see it. She was just there: a black mist standing above him. Coal red eyes stared down at him as tendrils of black drifted away from her shoulders, elbows, ankles, and toes. No wonder he hadn’t seen her; she had probably blended herself into the shadows of the shop.
“C-can I help y-you?” he squeaked. His mouth had gone dry. He licked his lips nervously with a thick, amphibian tongue.
No response. The shadow stood there. Menacing. Silent. That odd tilt to the head as she looked down at him at once both innocent and eerie.
“We have a wide selection of frames and lenses. I am sure I can find something for you.”
Did umbras even need glasses? He hadn’t recalled seeing one in his shop before. The shopkeep pressed backward into the cubbies behind him and felt the old wood pressing lines in his flesh. The umbra stepped down before him in a fluid, supple motion. She was at least half a head taller than he and significantly more lithe.
He smiled a wide smile and then let out a nervous chuckle that died as he saw what she held in her hand. A large straight razor hung loosely in the shadow’s left hand, the naked blade reflecting unintelligible, twisted shapes.
The shopkeep dropped his newspaper and raised his hands defensively.
“Look, I don’t want any trouble,” he began.
The straight razor flashed out. It was perfect, smooth, and deadly sharp.
He tried to react, but the umbra was faster and he was graceless. She caught his neck: the blade of the razor cut into his throat sack, split arteries, and shattered both his windpipes. A surge of blood gushed from his throat and seemed to pass through the umbra as if she wasn’t there. The shopkeep gurgled and clutched at his throat, his thick, black blood covering his hands and soaking into his white linen shirt and gray trousers. He slid down to his knees and then collapsed, his back against the wall. He could feel his body convulsing as his hearts pumped blood out of the open wound.
He didn’t understand.
The shadow bent over him. Looked at him again with that strange tilt of the head. He wanted to cry out; wet tears rolled down his cheeks and by the smell he knew he had pissed himself. Slowly, methodically the umbra drew the straight razor across his face, cutting above his lips, below his nose. He felt the blade continue its cut, tracing an oval around his upper and lower lips, across his chin. The shopkeep gurgled through hot flashes of pain.
The umbra drew back, peeling his lips away from his face like a sticker. She looked at him and then at his lips, holding them in the black of her palm almost inquisitively. Blood dripped from the flesh, seemed to pass through her hand and spattered on the floor.
The shopkeep stared in horror. Seeing his mouth sitting in the hands of this umbra woman was too much to bear. He was panicking, but his arms refused to move. He wanted to kick out, but his feet felt anchored to the ground. He felt his three hearts slowing, and somehow he knew he wouldn’t be going home. He would miss the family meal. He would not see his brood. He would miss his wives. He would never see his aging father again. The radio droned on, the maero’s voice a rumbly lullaby.
The umbra stepped away, taking the shopkeep’s lips with her. Drifting across the room towards the front of the narrow shop, she disappeared out the front door. The doorbell tinkled softly.
Want more? The Stars Were Right is available everywhere books are sold. Continue the adventure, meet new characters, explore the vast megalopolis of Lovat, discover the identity of the shadowy figure, and the reason the shopkeep was killed.
Copyright © 2020 by K. M. Alexander. All rights reserved. No part of this text may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, reposting, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without express written permission of the author.