The Hammer

Ermolaev Alexander/

This post was originally published through Patreon on February 19, 2019.

Only after opening the door did I discover Mr. Duncan’s body, and by then it was too late. He’d given me yesterday off, and when I returned, the smell was overpowering.

It was an old shop—older, even than Mr. Duncan himself—and not many like it were left. This wasn’t due only to the unusual wares Mr. Duncan sold, but also to the building’s Dutch Colonial architecture, which came straight out of the early 1800s. There wasn’t much in the way of legal paperwork, but that had never overly concerned its owner. The shop wasn’t easy to find, not unless you knew what you were looking for.

My first thought upon opening the door was that I’d see Mr. Duncan seated at the back in his antique rocking chair, whittling or smoking a pipe. Instead, my nostrils were assaulted by the stench of spoiled meat, and when I spotted Mr. Duncan’s cadaver, hunched over a narrow glass counter, purple and bloated like a corpse thrown overboard, I gagged.

“Mr. Duncan!”

For almost two years, the old man had prepared me for this possibility. It was one of the reasons he agreed to take me on as an employee—with an eye toward making me his apprentice—even though he had so little business nowadays that it was hardly worth the expense. But until the day I found his body, his warnings had amounted to little more than a theoretical complication, an uncomfortable curiosity that would sometimes pass between us the way dark clouds sometimes pass across an otherwise peaceful sky.

I raked my hands through my hair. Every instinct urged me to go to him, to check for signs of life even though it was clear nothing could be done. But the look of the body suggested that doing so would be dangerous, a fact that Mr. Duncan had drilled into my head over and over again. The body was not just a message but a trap, so instead I raced behind the counter, steering clear of the poisonous corpse, and located a small steel box hidden beneath a loose floorboard.

Tears stained my eyes as I removed a second key from my pocket, one we’d both prayed I’d never have to use. I unlocked the box, opened it, and blinked.

“If something were to happen to me,” Mr. Duncan had said on multiple occasions—his usual, not-so-subtle way of preparing me for the worst—”you open that box and protect whatever you find inside.” Many times, I’d asked him what that something was. His reply was always that I was better off not knowing.

I was honored to be trusted with the secret of the box’s existence, along with a copy of the key that opened it, and I returned the old man’s gesture by respecting his privacy and steering clear of his secret. But oh, how curiosity had chiseled away at me. I spent so much time imagining what I wasn’t allowed to see that when I finally laid eyes on the box’s contents for myself, I was more than a little underwhelmed.

The object in question was a tiny metal replica of a blacksmith’s hammer. Made of polished, untarnished silver, it flashed when I held it toward the light. It was nice, bordering on beautiful, but why had Mr. Duncan gone to such great lengths to protect it, and why had the people he’d warned me about come around at last to look for it?

I made to place it in my pocket, then paused.

Why so much trouble over a trinket?

Might it not be better to leave it behind and let it be someone else’s problem? The idea that those who’d murdered Mr. Duncan might come looking for it again terrified me, and without knowing what the object was or why it was important, what was the point of taking on such risk?

Then I glanced at Mr. Duncan’s corpse. The sight of his discolored, disfigured body brought back the smell, and a fresh wave of nausea made me wretch all over again.

“Trust me and do as I say,” the old man had said just a week before his untimely passing. “There is much I would teach you if only there was time.” It was as if he’d foreseen his own death—and for all I knew, he had.

What have you gotten me into? I wanted to ask, but I knew he couldn’t answer.

Not now, not ever again.

When I finally palmed the tiny hammer, there was no magic flash of light nor supernatural revelation. All I had to go on was a promise I’d made to a now-deceased friend. But that promise, along with the trust it represented, was all I needed, and when I stepped outside into the light once more, unsure what sort of power I possessed, I said a prayer for its protection and hoped that whoever had killed Mr. Duncan wouldn’t come searching for me next.

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4 thoughts on “The Hammer”

  1. I am always excited to see these emails in my box. Have you ever revisited any of these short stories and made a longer version?

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