Everett was checking the edge of a skiving knife against the light when he saw the man reading the gold letters on the shop window. The red paint accents were grayish pink now, but the gold leaf gleamed in 24-carat letters announcing Everett Weldon/Bespoke Boots. He ought to have the window repainted. Katie would have seen to it, but she wasn’t up to doing much since the chemotherapy.
Everett waved to the gentleman, and went back to stropping the knife. When the cowbell over the door clanked, he put the skiver down beside the other tools he was sharpening, and stood from the old stool in front of his workbench.
The man wore a dark gray suit with subtle pin striping, and lapels with a break to them that only a master tailor could achieve. He removed a black Hamburg, and then his gloves, before extending his right hand.
“Mr.Weldon, I presume.” His voice was like silk.
Everett’s hands were clean, but he wiped them on a bandana before accepting the handshake. The gentleman’s hand was warm, almost feverish. The skin was smooth and soft and supple.
“At your service.”
The gentleman smiled. “My name is Nickels. I run a futures firm. Bill Zebeau is one of my vice presidents and, I believe, a customer of yours.”
Everett remembered Zebeau – a thickset fellow with a dark tan, who paid cash, in full and up front. Wore a 10 ½ narrow, with the highest arches Everett could remember seeing. Zebeau had ordered a pair of tarted-up boots with cattle skulls on the tops and appliquéd horseflies on the heels, and cockroach-killer toes filed to a point. Everett had thought them tacky, but they were no worse than the heavy metal guitarist who’d ordered appliqués of a woman gratifying herself on the neck of a guitar.
“Bill has a certain passion for kitsch,” Mr.Nickels offered, as if ashamed of his employee’s tastes. “However, I admired the superlative quality of your work. I would like to order a pair of dress Wellingtons in black. No ornamentation at all.”
Everett approved. Feet were either the first thing or the last thing a man who cared about his clothes thought about. Mr.Nickels displayed only a daring simplicity, down to the hand-rolled hem of his white silk handkerchief in his breast pocket. His gloves were good, black kidskin. Of course his shoes were bespoke. No man paid that much attention to and money on his clothes and wore ready-made shoes. This was the sort of man who would go to an ice cream parlor and order the vanilla in order to judge the base-line quality of all the selections. For such a man, quality, not price, would be the important issue.
Mr.Nickels offered a challenge, and a lucrative one, at that. Everett liked the idea. It had been a while since he’d had a challenge he could grasp. After Katy’s last illness, he needed such a distraction, after days and days of pacing hospital halls with his useless hands shoved in his pockets.
“Did you have a particular leather in mind?”
“I utterly detest ostrich and eel skin, if that is what you mean.”
So textured hides. This customer wanted something that would show even the tiniest flaws in workmanship. This kind of boots that would show Everett’s true skill.
He beckoned Mr.Nickels into the storeroom and showed him different grades of calfskin; but he refused each offering, though politely. As Everett reached for a scrapbook of samples he could special order, Mr.Nickels asked –
“Of what are your boots made?”
A little surprised, he glanced at his own feet. The dark brown leather had seen many years and a few resoles, but they were mature, not worn.
“Shell Cordovan,” he said.
“I beg your pardon?”
“It’s also called shell horsehide. It’s the hide from the horse’s hip and thigh.”
“It ages beautifully. Can you do it in black?”
Everett always measured twice, but now, after four tries, he was about to throw the measuring tape down. He couldn’t get the same figure twice running for the foot length, and it was only the first of many measurements he needed.
“Is something wrong?”
“My hands must be unsteady this morning.”
“It’s more likely I’m at fault. My feet are ticklish.” Mr.Nickels breathed deeply and set his face. “Proceed.”
That did it. The numbers cooperated.
Mr.Nickels named a figure, and Everett tried not to gasp. It was easily three times his usual fee. He didn’t haggle.
“However,” the man said as Everett opened his mouth to accept, “for that sum, I will expect utter perfection. A perfect fit, perfect workmanship – as if you were entering a competition with your peers. I want no other hands to touch it. I know some craftsmen have their apprentices assemble the uppers.”
Everett frowned. “It’s called ‘closing’ the upper, and I don’t have an apprentice.”
“Indeed? I would have thought a master of your skill and experience would have applicants beating down your door.”
“The tech school did ask me to teach a course, once,” he admitted, “but people these days just want to get into producing. Sewing machines and such. I’ve got nothing against them, I use ‘em myself, sometimes, on pieces that don’t matter as much. But they don’t want to take the time to do it all, want to rush over the dull work and concentrate on showing off with fancy designs. My grandfather taught my daddy the long way, same as he taught me. I can’t teach anything less.”
“I am sorry to hear it – not that you won’t compromise, I mean. I admire that. But it would be a sad thing if the world lost your knowledge when you pass on. Well then, in a month?”
“See you then.”
He paid half up front in cash – enough to make a large dent in the bills. The cowbell clanked as Mr.Nickels left. He stopped to look in the window a moment, then tipped his hat and walked briskly away.
Everett put the rasp to the wood again, and hesitated again to check the measurement on the card. He was shaping a block of maple into a replica of the foot, relying on the figures and the memory in his fingers of the details beneath the gentleman’s socks.
His fingers were what made him pause. Nickels had an even higher instep then Zebeau. The foot was along and slim. Wealth aside, Nickels would have required bespoke shoes. Such narrow heels! The nearly-finished last reminded him of something, but he couldn’t place it. The last for the right foot lay finished on the workbench.
He’d made boots for clubfeet before, for feet missing toes, even for prosthetic feet. High arches, fallen arches, all sorts of deformities. So why did Mr.Nickels’ feet bother him?
The second toe: His fingers remembered feel of it, even if his eyes had not seen anything wrong. The toe was enlarged. Some slight deformity? That must be it, even though there had been no oddity in the man’s gait. Deformities almost always showed in a person’s walk.
He was tired as he took off the final roughness with the rasp, switched to a file, then sandpaper and put it on the bend by its twin, and closed the shop.
He slept poorly. The lasts danced in his dreams, danced on the toes of the maple feet, stomping on a wooden floor like hooves.
He woke gasping and sweating. Hooves! Now he knew. He knew who Mr.Nickels was. Mr.Nickels with the weird feet was the Devil himself!
He didn’t sleep the rest of the night and lay rigidly still so as not to wake Katy. What did the Devil want? What did the Devil always want? He tried desperately to remember what the terms were, what words had been said, if anything had been signed. No, as best he could remember, the Devil had just commissioned a pair of boots for a lot of money. He hadn’t mentioned Everett’s soul at all.
Still, he opened the shop with a lead heart the next morning. He had a month to produce the best boots he knew how. That wasn’t the problem. He was just sure the Devil was going to twist things on him, to trick him. He nearly made himself sick.
Get a hold of yourself, he finally said. The deal’s done. Whatever it is, you’re committed, and you’d better make the best boots you can, or at the least he’ll have the laugh on you and not pay you. He smoothed out the black horsehide, checked his figures, and put knife to skin.
Mr.Nickels was pleased with the boots, and pronounced them “elegant.” They were. Glossy black, with low, square heels and a rounded toe box to accommodate that odd foot, with only a beading of piping around the top and another down the seam to break the line of polished leather.
“I’ve never had such an exquisite fit!”
Everett breathed relief. Now if he’d just pay and go away. But Mr.Nickels didn’t leave.
“You’ve passed my test, Mr.Weldon. Now I would like to conduct some serious business.”
“I don’t think so. I figured out who you really are. You fooled my eyes with your socks and your tricks, but you couldn’t fool my hands. You’re the devil.”
Mr.Nickels, rather than upset, was pleased, which upset Everett.
“Excellent! That smoothes the road considerably. You see, I want to make a proposal to you, and it is much easier to do so now you know who I am.”
“I’m not interested.”
“Hear me out, please. In my time, I have acquired a vast collection of unique items, things that exist no where else. Like many a curator, I find it difficult to store everything properly, and impossible to throw anything out. So I’ve decided to convert certain items into different, more utilitarian objects.I have hides, well-tanned and cured, of several fantastical creatures, each the last of its kind. Unicorn, sea-serpent, and so forth. I have been searching for some time now for the master who can do justice to these hides. Are you interested?”
Everett hesitated. Part of him knew it was a trick, but he was tempted. He fought his curiosity down.
“And, of course, as I will be putting a tremendous train on you by putting such irreplaceable items under your knife, you will be compensated accordingly.I’m prepared to be obscenely generous.” He named a figure ten times the price he’d paid for the black boots now on his feet. “And that would be per pair, or course.”
Everett was astounded. He could clear the mortgage, the credit cards, pay off the truck. Take Katy traveling. With that kind of money, he could close the shop for a month and not miss the income at all. Then his good sense dashed cold water in his face.
He swallowed. It’s a trap! It has to be a trap! He stood firm.
“My soul isn’t for sale.”
The Devil blinked in surprise. “Soul? Who said anything about your soul?”
“I’m a simple man. I don’t like deviousness. I know about you, and I’m not going to fall for your tricks.”
“Let me assure you, I only want boots. I have no interest whatsoever in your soul.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“Well, true. I’d like to have your soul, but it’s too strong to be worth the effort. But I do want your craftsmanship, and I have plenty of perfectly good money to pay for it. Now, what do you say?
“I say you’d better go.”
The Devil laid a stack of money on the counter. “This squares us for now. I’ll give you a week to think on it. I’ll want ten pair, over a period of ten years. Just think about it.” He left.
Everett told himself he’d done the right thing. But the next day, he began to wonder. What if the Devil had told the truth? The money would make him and Katie secure. Katie’s cancer was likely to come back someday. They’d never had the money to travel, to do any of the things they had talked about when they were younger. And then there was the lure of the leathers: To actually hand and work skins no other bootmaker had touched, the hides of fabulous beasts.
He knew deals with the Evil One always went sour; but his soul wasn’t part of the deal. Just boots. He wondered if there might be a way, if he could secure the deal without putting his soul at risk, leaving the Devil no wriggle room to turn on him.
By the third day he had started scribbling, just to see. He quit work altogether the rest of the week, working up a contract as simple and forthright as himself.
“Well, I’ve thought about it. My word’s as good as my bond, but, begging your pardon, yours isn’t.” Everett laid the contract down. “But if you’ll sign this, we’ll have a deal.”
The Devil read it, at first amused, then irritated. His face turned purple, and the room got suddenly warm.
“You came to me. I can make the boots you want; but on my terms. You provide the leather and any special tools I’ll need, and you’ll get the best boots I can make. But you leave Katie and me alone. No distractions, no tricks, none of your double-dealing. You got it?”
The Devil was furious, but gave in. “Well, it’s not as if the money means anything to me.” He took out a fountain pen.
Everett handed him a ballpoint. “Use this, if you don’t mind.”
The Devil ripened like a tomato. “You’re exceedingly suspicious for a ‘simple man,’ Mr.Weldon.” He took the pen and looped out his signature. “I shall return on March first, next year, and we’ll begin.”
On the appointed day, the Devil delivered the first hide. It looked like horsehide, white and supple as milk, and it tried to get away the minute he unrolled the bundle. Everett reached for it, but it shied away like a colt.
“Yes, well,” the Devil said. “I’m afraid this presents your first hurdle. It’s unicorn, and can only be approached by a virgin, preferably a girl. You’re a married man, and I, well ...” He shrugged.
Everett cornered the hide, lunged for it, but slipped under the counter and refused to come out.
“This won’t work! You’re supposed to give me whatever tools I need.”
The Devil looked embarrassed. “True. Your document is explicit. But where would I get my hands on an innocent? And would you want me to try?”
Everett gave him a sharp look. He felt trapped. Was this a trick? He certainly didn’t want the Evil One hunting down a child just so the hide could get cut up.
“Well, I’ll have to leave it to you, Mr.Weldon. If you can’t finish in time, the contract is null, because I haven’t fulfilled my part of the bargain. But if you can, I guess I must be expected to compensate you for the extra effort. Good day.” He left.
The hide made a break for the open door, but Everett threw himself in its path. It dodged around the shop until it was lathered and quivering. He managed to shoo it into a box and tied the lid tightly, and was cursing the Devil and wondering how he was ever going to so much as touch the hide, when the cowbell clanked.
A young girl, wearing a green uniform, her mother standing behind her, looked at him with a shy smile.
“Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?”
“Please,” her mother reminded.
He asked her “Do you have any merit badges for leatherworking?”
The next afternoon, Nancy’s mother dropped her off.
“What are we going to make?” she asked.
“Boots.” He put the box on the counter.
His idea worked. Nancy opened the box, and the leather lay as still as any normal hide. As long as she was touching it, he was able to mark and cut out the pattern. He did it carefully, as he always did, watching the grain and working around a hole that must have been where it had been stuck with a spear or something. Nancy put the leftovers back in the box, and the boot pieces in another, and Everett tied them both and she went home.
He had to work more slowly than he liked, as he had to wait for her to arrive from school each day. As long as she was in the room, the pieces lay quiet and normal, and except that they quivered when she left to go to the bathroom, they were a joy to work with. Nancy made a purse for her project. By the time she was done, the uppers were finished and secured to the lasts, and all he had to do was tether them to the workbench at night.
On the thirty-first, the devil walked into the ship, and was delighted to see the boots. They pranced and nuzzled each other and strained to get away when the Devil reached for them. They were perfect, without flaw. The Devil paid up, shook Everett’s hand, and went his way, his heels thumping like hooves on the sidewalk.
And so it went, year after year. The Devil showed up on March first and returned thirty days later to collect the boots and leftover leather.
The second hide was a silkie, which looked like sealskin, but changed to a woman’s when Everett touched it. It made him flushed and uncomfortable, and he took a number of cold showers that month. The basilisk was particularly nasty, because while the Devil had taken the precaution of removing all the head from the hide, the skin was hard on Everett’s eyes, and made his muscles stiffen, so that he had to take a hot bath and a handful of aspirin every night.
The manticore hide was so tough it blunted every blade he had, and he finally had to cut it with the diamond in Katie’s wedding ring. Something in the leather made his fingers sting, and his fingertips stayed numb for weeks after he was done stitching them. The Devil did provide bristles from a magical boar, since steel needles broke trying to pass through the skin. And he had made a special awl that not only did not break, but worked better than any awl Everett owned. He was tempted to forgo his usual fee if he could have the awl instead, but caution told him keeping a hell-forged tool was a bad idea.
After the third pair, when he had paid off all the medical bills, the mortgage and the truck, he still had enough to take Katie to see the ocean. They planned to go to the mountains the next year.
He also acquired an apprentice. Tom was a quick study, and had been raised in the business, sort of. His family had a tannery, but he was tired of just preparing skins. He wanted to make showpiece boots, with fancy stitching and appliqués and inlays, the kinds that rich people paid master bootmakers for. Everett admired his zeal and was relieved the youngster seemed to have enough patience to learn to do things the slow way, though just barely. They argued often over techniques and pricing and the need to advertise, but Everett was tolerant because young men always thought they knew everything. And Tom did have talent: soon he was taking his own commission work, and after a few years even had a few repeat customers of his own.
Everett never told Tom about the deal with the Devil. He closed the shop for two months every year, sending Tom off to drum business at conventions and rodeos, while he made the year’s boots in March, then took Katie traveling in April. Business boomed.
Everett had to admit he came to look forward to March, and the challenge of the next magical hide, whether enjoyable or not. The hydra was a infuriating. Wherever he cut out a piece, the hide regenerated, until he wound up with more whole hide than he’d begun with. And trimming the excess away after he’d sewn the uppers to the soles was nightmarish, with slivers of skin falling to the floor and growing into new, full-sized hides. He wound up with enough leftover hydra hide to make a large tent.
The last one was a dragon. Everett had expected something with big, lapping scales, but it was more like alligator than anything. He thought the Devil might bring back the magical awl, but instead got the assurance that his heart was pure enough to poke holes through a manifestation of evil. For thread, he received a ball of twined silk from a spider god. It took every moment of daylight of every one of the thirty days to force the dragon hide into submission and stitch it. Then, almost as soon as he’d finished rubbing dressing into the skin, the boots belched flame, and Everett poured out the ashes of the hand-carved lasts.
He never felt so relieved as the day the Devil collected the dragon boots, but also a little wistful. The greatest challenge of his career was over. Still, he enjoyed the trip to Europe. Katie glowed like a young girl again.
They had been home three days when she felt a new lump.
By the next Christmas, Everett had abandoned the shop to Tom while he stayed with Katie. He buried her on Valentine’s Day. For the next two weeks, he went around the town, head down, his hands in his pockets, telling himself over and over that she had said she was happy, that he had made her happy.
He knew it was time to start again. On March first, he arrived before Tom, made coffee, dusted off his workbench, and considered what he would start on first.
The cowbell clanked. Everett looked up to see the Devil, wearing the first pair of shell Cordovans and smiling. The apprentice was holding the door for him.
“What are you doing here?”
“Such brusqueness to an old and valued customer,” the Devil said, still smiling.
“Tom, go into the storeroom.”
Tom closed the blinds, then did as he was told.
“Listen you, we’re done. The contract is filled, on both sides.”
The Devil took off his hat and gloves. “Indeed it is, and I am highly pleased with the results.”
“Then why are you here?”
“First, I wish to tender my condolences on your loss. Katie was a fine woman. As good and simple as yourself.”
“I never wanted your soul, my friend. I was honest about that from the beginning. I collect souls, but that is my profession. My hobby, remember, is collecting rare items, things that are the last of their kind, especially hides of nearly extinct specimens. Like the last old-style bootmaker.”
Tom stepped around him and the spreading pool of blood to stand beside the Devil. He was holding a skinning knife.
The Devil smiled a last time. “Of course, I purchased his soul years ago. A pity, really, that he doesn’t care about craftsmanship. He just wants to be rich and famous.”