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"Welcome to the town that mortgaged its own jail!"
The amplified voice blaring over the nearby tour bus loudspeaker startled me so much I almost smashed my own thumb. I'd been lifting my hammer to turn a nicely heated iron rod into a fireplace poker when the tour guide's spiel boomed across the town square, shattering my concentration.
"Mommy, did the blacksmith lady do that on purpose?" piped up a child's voice.
A few onlookers tittered. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, then opened them again. I checked to make sure that all fifty or sixty of the spectators were safely behind the fence around my outdoor blacksmith's shop. Then I raised my hammer and began pounding.
Nothing like blacksmithing when you're feeling annoyed. The voice from the tour bus still squawked away, but I couldn't hear what it was saying. And I felt the tension and frustration pouring out of me like water out of a twisted sponge.
Along with the sweat. Even though it was only a little past ten, the temperature was already in the high eighties and the air was thick with humidity. It would hit the mid-nineties this afternoon. A typical early July day in Caerphilly, Virginia.
But in spite of the heat and the interruptions, I managed to complete the current task—shaping one end of the iron rod into the business end of the poker. I flourished the hammer dramatically on the last few blows and lifted the tongs to display the transformed rod.
"Voila!" I said. "One fireplace poker."
"But it needs a handle," an onlooker said.
"A handle?" I turned the rod and cocked my head, as if to look at it more closely, and pretended to be surprised. "You're right. So let's heat the other end and make a handle."
I thrust the handle end of the poker into my forge and pulled the bellows lever a couple of times to heat up the fire. As I did, I glanced over at my cousin, Rose Noire. She was standing in the opening at the back of my booth, staring at her cell phone. She looked up and shook her head.
"What the hell is keeping Rob?" I muttered. Not that my brother was ever famous for punctuality.
I wondered, just for a moment, if he was okay.
I'd have heard about it already if he wasn't, I told myself. I pushed my worry aside and kept my face pleasant for the tourists. After all, I'd been making a good living off the tourists all summer. However inconvenient it had been to move my entire blacksmithing shop from our barn to the Caerphilly town square, it had certainly been a financial bonanza. Maybe it wouldn't be a bad idea if the town held Caerphilly Days every summer.
I just hoped we didn't have to continue them into the fall. What if—
I focused on the tourists again and continued my demonstration.
"To work the iron, you need to heat it to approximately—"
"That tent on your right contains the office of the mayor," the tour bus boomed, even closer at hand. "Formerly housed in the now-empty City Hall building."
No use trying to out-shout a loudspeaker. I smiled, shrugged apologetically to the tourists, and steeled myself to listen without expression as the voice droned on, reciting the sad, embarrassing history of Caerphilly's financial woes.
"Alas, when the recession hit," the loudspeaker informed us, "the town was unable to keep up with payments on its loan, so the lender was forced to repossess the courthouse, the jail, and all the other public buildings."
Convenient that they didn't mention the real reason Caerphilly couldn't make its payments—that George Pruitt, our ex-mayor, had stolen most of the borrowed funds for his own use. Actually, a few buses had, until he'd threatened to sue, so now they just mentioned the ongoing lawsuit against him. Not as dramatic, but less apt to backfire.
"And to your left, you can see the Caerphilly Days festival, organized by the citizens to help their troubled town out of its dire plight."
I always winced when I heard that line. It wasn't exactly false—but it did seem to imply that we craftspeople were donating our time and our profits out of the goodness of our hearts, to benefit the town. We weren't—we were making good money for our own pockets. Our real value to the town lay elsewhere.
Not that we could let the tour buses know that—or worse, the Evil Lender, as we all called First Progressive Financial, LLC, the company that had foreclosed on so much of our town. Only our new mayor made an effort to call them FPF, and that was because he spent so much time negotiating with them and had to be polite.
I glanced into the forge and was relieved to see that my iron was hot enough to work. I glanced at Rose Noire and nodded, to indicate that I was about to start hammering again. She bent over her cell phone and began texting rapidly. To Rob, I assumed.
"Come on, Rob," I muttered. "Hurry up."
I pulled the rod out of my forge and began the much more complicated job of hammering the handle end into a sinuous vinelike coiled shape. Mercifully, by the time the iron needed reheating, the amplified tour bus had moved on, and I had only the tourists' questions to deal with.
"What happens if you break it?"
"Don't you ever burn yourself?"
"You shoe horses, don't you?"
"Wouldn't it be faster to do that with a machine?"
I spun out my answers in between bouts at my anvil. Finishing the poker required several return visits to the forge, followed by several vigorous rounds of hammering. I could see Rose Noire, cell phone in hand, keeping a close eye on my progress. I treated the rod—and the tourists—to one last crescendo, a great deal louder than it needed to be, dunked the rod into the water bucket, releasing a small but dramatic cloud of steam, and held up the finished poker for the tourists to admire.
And then I did it all over again. Several times. I answered what seemed like several hundred more questions—or more accurately, at least a hundred iterations of the same half dozen questions. Finally the clock in the courthouse building chimed eleven, signaling the end of my shift.
I finished up the andiron I'd been making and thanked the tourists. Then I changed my sign to the one saying that Meg Langslow's next blacksmithing exhibition would begin at 2 P.M. and slipped through the gate in the back of my enclosure. The cousin I'd recruited to mind the booth and sell my ironwork for me dashed in and began quickly shoving the tables of merchandise from the side of the enclosure to a much more prominent place front and center before the crowds dispersed.
Normally I'd have stayed to help her, but Rose Noire was waiting for me. She looked anxious. Not good.
"What's wrong?" I asked.
"Rob's been delayed," she said. "He's fine, and he'll try again later."
"Delayed?" I realized that I'd raised my voice. Several tourists were looking at us, so I choked back what I'd been about to say. "Back to the tent!" I said instead.
I strode rapidly across the small space separating my forge from the bandstand at the center of the town square. At the back of the bandstand was a tent. The town square was filled with tents of every size, shape, and description, but whenever anyone barked out "the tent!" as I just had, they nearly always meant this one.
Rose Noire scuttled along anxiously behind me.
As soon as I stepped inside the tent, I felt my fingers itching to tidy and organize. Even at its best, the tent was cramped and cluttered, since it served as the dressing room, green room, and lounge for all the craftspeople and performers participating in Caerphilly Days. Several coatracks held costumes for performers who would be appearing later or street clothes for anyone already in costume. And every corner held plastic bins, locked trunks, totes, knapsacks, boxes, grocery bags, suitcases, and just plain piles of stuff.
"Mom-my!" Josh and Jamie, my twin eighteen-month-old sons, greeted me with enthusiasm. They both toddled to the nearest side of the huge play enclosure we'd set up, holding out their arms and leaning over the child fence toward me, jostling each other, and repeating "Mom-my! Mom-my!"
Eric, my teenaged nephew, was sitting at the back of the enclosure, holding a toy truck and looking slightly hurt.
"They were fine until you came in," he said.
"I know," I said. "They just want to guilt-trip me." Making a mental note to chivvy my fellow tent users into a cleaning spree later in the day, I stepped into the enclosure, sat down, and let the boys climb on top of me. Hugging them calmed me down.
"Thank you for watching them," I said. "And not that I'm complaining, but what are you doing here instead of Natalie?" Eric's sister had been our live-in babysitter for most of the summer.
"Grandpa says Natalie's ankle is broken and she needs to stay off her feet," Eric said. "So Mom drove up this morning to take her home and bring me as a replacement for the next few weeks. Assuming that's okay with you."
"It's fine with me." Having Eric babysit was fine, anyway. Should I feel guilty that my niece had broken her ankle chasing my sons? I'd worry about that later.
"And thank goodness you're here to help out in time for the Fourth of July," I said aloud. "Everything will get a lot easier after the Fourth."
"I thought Caerphilly Days went on all summer," Eric said. "What's so special about the Fourth?"
"I haven't told him," Rose Noire said. "And evidently Natalie is very good at keeping a secret."
"But he's a resident now, at least for the time being," I said. "Eric, do you swear you won't tell a single soul what I am about to reveal?"
"Yes," he said. "I mean, I swear by … um…"
"Cross your heart and hope to die?" I asked.
"Okay. Then it's time we told you Caerphilly's sinister secret."
Copyright © 2012 by Donna Andrews