Iron Angels – Snippet 36

The woman looked at Jasper. Whose contribution was “Uh…”

Temple smiled slightly. “What he means is,” she said, “we have a few questions for Carlos and his recollection of a crime.”

“Yes.” Jasper managed. “We need to speak with him, Miss — ”

“Penny Stahlberg,” the young woman said.

“Are you the receptionist?” asked Temple. “Is there someone else we should speak with?”

Penny’s eyes darkened as if ready to swing a hammer or hurl lightning bolts at him.

“No, I’m pretty much your point of contact,” Penny said. “I’m part owner of Wayland Precision.”

“May we come in?” Temple leaned forward.

Penny gestured for them to enter.

“You said Carlos wasn’t in any trouble.” Penny offered them a bench in the dimly lit reception area. “Oh, pardon the atmosphere, we don’t receive many people here at the shop.”

“No, uh, Ms. Stahlberg,” Jasper said.

“You can call me Penny.”

“No, Penny,” Jasper said, “Carlos isn’t in trouble. He may have information on the recent kidnappings. I’m sure you’re aware of them?”

“Oh yes, horrible. I can’t imagine investigating such matters. Care for some water? It’s boiling outside.”

“No thank you,” Temple said. “May we speak with Carlos?”

“I’ll send him up.” Penny moved for another solidly built door sporting a combo lock, where a sequence of numbers are pressed and a switch is turned, opening the lock.

“May we have a tour of your building?” Temple asked.

“It’s a machine shop — not much to see, really.”

“I’d be interested.” Jasper couldn’t believe how much of an ass he was making of himself.

“I’m sure.” Temple poked him in the ribs.

“How about another time?” Penny said, “We’re quite busy today.”

“On a weekend? Your business must do okay. What exactly do you do here?” Temple fired away with the questions and remained standing, as if displaying her dominance over the Norse goddess denying them entrance to the temple.

Jasper shook his head. What in the hell was wrong with him, he hadn’t felt this way since, well, since Lucy way back in the day when they’d first met. Not a good omen, but also not anything to put much stock in.

“Like I said,” Penny’s stance faltered, “we’re busy, and — ”

The intercom crackled. “Show our guests in.” That was a man’s voice; not Carlos’s, but an older one, projecting gravitas.

“You heard the man,” Penny said.

“And who would that be?” Temple asked.

“Steve Stahlberg,” Penny said. Jasper wondered if that was her husband and suddenly he was crestfallen. But —

“Steve is my father;” she explained. “We own and operate Wayland Precision together.”

“You can relax.” Temple glanced over her shoulder at Jasper and pursed her lips, as if calling him out over his ribbing of her earlier regarding his friend, Ed White.

Jasper’s ears radiated heat. Embarrassing.

Penny bit her lip, trying not to smile, and turned away.

Damn it.

“This way.” Penny punched the code into the keypad and pulled open the door.

They descended a long flight of stairs upon stepping through the door. A vegetal scent filled the air.

“I thought you ran a machine shop.” Jasper glanced about, attempting to locate the source of the odd scent.

“We have some strange hobbies,” Penny said.

“Such as?” Temple wasn’t even trying to hide her skepticism.

“You’ll see,” Penny said. “For one thing, we like growing mushrooms down here.”

“For what? Extra mushrooms on your pizza?” Temple’s tone came right to the edge of outright sarcasm.

“Don’t mind her.” Jasper said to the Norse goddess. “You must have a good reason, I mean, other than loving fungi.”

Temple shook her head, and yes, he continued making a fool of himself.

“I’ll let my father speak with you on the finer points,” Penny offered.

“But we’re here to speak with Carlos,” Temple said.

“I’m sure that can be arranged.”

Penny said the last line as if Carlos was indisposed, or a prisoner locked away in a dungeon.

The group descended into a damp cool. A substance, not slick, but slimy, coated the surface of each step, and Jasper was relieved when they reached the bottom.

The hallway glowed unnaturally under the current lighting conditions — was the light blue? Violet? Penny flipped a switch and good old incandescent bulbs flared to life, providing a harsh yellowish-white light.

“Better?” Penny smiled disarmingly.

A bench lined the hallway on one side, but acted as more of a planter. Mushrooms in varying states of growth and maturity filled the box, planted in the blackest soil. A few of the mushrooms attained gargantuan proportions.

A strange feeling crept into Jasper’s gut. Inserting a woman into a situation proved time and again the easiest way to put law enforcement at ease, and whoever ran Wayland Precision had done just that. But Temple’s bullshit detector was probably wired correctly. He relaxed. A tiny bit.

“What is it?” Temple whispered into his ear.

“Nothing, at least I hope it’s nothing.”

“There’s nothing to worry about,” Penny said.

Jasper winced. He’d never had a soft whisper.

A door opened at the opposite end of the hallway; a figure blocked the light coming from the other side.

“Bring them along, Penny.” The gruff voice echoed down the hallway.

“Don’t mind him,” Penny said.

“Who? Your father? Steve, right?” Jasper asked. Why did he feel as if he were meeting a girlfriend’s father for the first time? He shook his head.

“Yes. I’m sure we can clear all this up.” Penny swung her gaze around on him and smiled.

“Calm down there, Romeo,” Temple whispered in Jasper’s ear. Penny didn’t notice or react.

“Here we go.” Penny stepped through the door past her father, who immediately blocked the entrance.

“So, you’re FBI, eh?” Steve folded thick arms across a broad chest. He was an imposing man with an equally imposing beard and head of hair. The silver locks fell across one side of his face, which was interesting since the uncovered side appeared as if it’d been terribly scalded — apparently he didn’t care and perhaps wore it as a badge or show of defiance. Regardless of the burn mark or port wine stain, Steve’s appearance resembled the same mythological Norse stock as Penny.

“Yes, sir,” Jasper said, and introduced himself and Temple.

“Steve Stahlberg, proprietor of Wayland Precision.”

“Nice sign out front,” Jasper said. “Noticed the Thor-like hammer under the name.”

Steve grinned and glanced at Penny who stood directly behind him. “See? I told you someone would notice.”

“May we come in?” Temple asked. “I have to admit, I’m not overly fond of the pungent smell out here in the hallway.”

“I’m afraid it won’t be much better in here,” Steve said, “but please, come in.” He stepped aside, granting them entrance. “The main office is down here, away from the metal working upstairs. One of the few places we can speak at a normal level and not go deaf.”

A few aquariums dotted the office, but they were all dim at the moment, and Jasper couldn’t make out what sort of fish lived in them. Typical office furniture filled the room: filing cabinets, desks, conference table, a few computers, and other accouterments one would expect.