I knew who Melody Anders was before she entered the shop. How could I not? I’d seen a few of her films— the sci-fi stuff, mostly, not the romcoms. I’d seen her face plastered on every bus, every day on my way to work. Even snuck a peak at her in magazines at the barbers or in doctors’ offices: look, I’m only human. Who hasn’t spent a few idle moments here and there wondering what it would be like to meet the most beautiful woman in the world?
Never in a hundred years would I imagine I’d see her walk into my store, and smile that Fort-Knox-gold smile at me like we were old friends.
Her agent had made the call a couple of days ago.
‘Is that McTavish Whiskies in Edinburgh, Scotland?’ Except the woman on the phone pronounced it “Edinburg,” to rhyme with “Pittsburg”. She asked if we’d be happy closing the store for an hour or two, so that Melody Anders could shop in peace, away from the paparazzi and the autograph hunters. If Dad had been here, there would be “nae way in Heav’n n’Earth Ah’m closing’ this shop so some stuck-up Yank bint can wander aimless fer an hour,” but he wasn’t here. He was in Tenerife. I was in charge, and it was my choice to make.
I said no.
The woman on the phone— Linda, was it? — asked why.
I said that at McTavish Whiskies we aimed to treat all our customers to the same level of excellent customer service, and we couldn’t possibly turn away paying customers for the sake of one individual, no matter how famous she might be.
Linda told me how much Miss Anders was looking forward to this visit. She said that Miss Anders loved our whisky, that she imported it, and did I know she’d given a bottle to Kanye for his birthday?
I said I didn’t know that and that I was sorry, but it just wasn’t possible.
Linda told me she’d compensate us.
I said we weren’t interested.
But just out of curiosity, I asked how much.
She gave me a figure. A ridiculous figure. A figure big enough to let us close the shop for a year. A figure big enough for me to live on for years, to write, to work on getting published, to find a way to move out of Dad’s attic.
I said no. The tanning that Dad would give me wasn’t worth it.
She gave me another figure. Twice as ridiculous.
My mouth went dry. Hey, what dad didn’t know wasn’t going to kill him, was it? I told Linda we would be free for an hour on Thursday.
I barely slept the night before her visit. I kept fidgeting in bed, imagining all the things that could go wrong. I had to eat three tablespoons of raw coffee, just to stay awake while I cleaned the store, dusted, polished every bottle.
My stomach was a cage of moths by the time the car rolled up outside, just after four. Two men, two pit-fighters, modern day gladiators that someone had trapped in matching suits strode into the shop, looked around. One of them sniffed the air, the other gave the slightest of nods, and the back door of the car opened.
I don’t know what I was expecting Melody Anders to look like. A cartoon version of a movie star, perhaps? Plastic skin and a bad attitude? Giant sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat to make her face look tiny? A dead animal around her neck, a live one poking its head out of a Prada bag? A face that had been painted on by a team of Renaissance artists into a permanent scowl?
Whoever I expected, it wasn’t Melody Anders.
The woman who walked into my shop was shorter than she looked on TV, but she made the rest of the room shrink around her. She looked so normal surrounded by the autumnal golds and reds around her: the crest of copper curls that crowned her heart-shaped face reflected in the bottles. Her chartreuse eyes were gleaming, bright as gemstones as they roamed around the store.
‘Wow,’ she said, apricot lips curving into a smile that could melt a glacier.
As she sauntered towards me, I fought the urge to tear away my gaze and stare at the floor. Her clothes were nothing too showy: T-shirt and jeans, torn artfully and deliberately. Stylish, good cut, but not excessive. Hugging her body just enough to trace the outline of her curves
‘Hi there.’ Her voice was friendly but smoky.
She offered me her hand. I took it, shook it once, carefully, in case I broke it.
‘Hello,’ I said.
She grinned. Her teeth were a choir of pearls. ’I’m Melody. Nice to meet you.’
‘Simon,’ I stammered. ‘You too’.
She flicked back her hair. ‘This is a great shop you’ve got here, Simon. You must work really hard on it.’
‘It’s nothing special. I’ve been lucky. My dad did most of the work. And the location’s good, so we get a lot of tourists.’
I felt like such a fraud. How on earth could this amazing, perfect, flawless woman possibly be interested in my shop? Had she gotten the wrong address?
She strolled along the aisles of the floor, touching bottles lightly, like a child in a toyshop, trying to stop herself from grabbing everything. ‘God, I’ve wanted to come here for so long. Did you know my grandpa was Scottish?’
‘Um, no. I didn’t.’
‘Yeah, he was from Dunbar. Emigrated after the war. He was the one who introduced me to real Scotch. Taught me to drink it properly. Said there was nowhere better than McTavish’s in all the Lowlands. Glad to see the place is still here.’ She turned to me and smiled. ‘Is there anything you’d recommend?’
I looked around, searching for something good enough for her. ‘Well,’ I said, as I picked up a bottle. ‘This is a seventeen-year-old Balvenie, doublewood, but…’ No. Not good enough. Not for her. ‘How about this? Islay, single malt, eighteen years? Or… hold on.’
I ran into the back, pulled out a bottle of golden honey that cost more than my university tuition. ‘Here. The Kinkell Signature. Triple cask. Forty years. They only produced twelve bottles.’
Her eyes went wide as saucers. ‘Can I try some?’
I smiled and pulled on the bottle. Tore the seal, and tried not to think about what Dad would do to me if he knew I’d opened a four-figure whisky bottle just to impress a girl. I poured a dram into the glass, offered it to her.
She held it in her hand like it was the Holy Grail, swirled it deliberately. It reminded me of how Dad looked when he held an unusually fine dram. She brought it to her nose and sniffed.
‘Wow, that is something else. Smells like someone set my dad’s log cabin on fire.’
She knocked back her hand, tossed the whisky into her mouth. Held for a moment, swallowed, and shrieked.
‘Damn. That stuff’s like a shotgun blast of honey to the back of my skull.’ She put the glass down in front of her, shook her head. It’s gonna be hell getting this through customs. Can I try it with water?’
I could feel the blood draining from my face at the thought of pouring a second glass of priceless liquor. ‘You want another?’
‘Sure. That’s the only way to check the flavor, right? A little bit of water opens it up. I mean, if you don’t mind.’
I didn’t mind. Dad would mind. But looking into those priceless eyes, his opinion didn’t seem to matter.
I poured. Let Melody Anders add the water.
She drank it. Her cheeks flushed with colour.
‘Yep,’ she croaked, shaking her head. ‘Definitely getting that one.’
I made a few more suggestions, and every time she tried one she smiled at me like we were old friends.
‘Man,’ she said. ‘It feels so good to get away from to interviews and photo shoots.’ She cocked her head at me, shook her head. ‘That’s gotta sound so dumb, right? Melody Anders complaining about how hard she’s got it to someone with a real job? Is that crazy?’
I shrugged. ‘It doesn’t sound crazy to me.’
She reached out, took my hand. ‘Thanks for letting me visit today, Simon. It’s been really great to pretend to be a real person, just for a while. Hey, do you mind doing me a little favor?
‘Of course. What do you need?’
‘Do you have anywhere I can go change? It’s been a long day, and I still have, like, a hundred engagements.’
‘Yeah, sure. There’s space in the back.’
I lead her through the corridor at the back of the shop, noting every patch of mould, every speck of dust in the hallway. Why hadn’t I thought to clean it?
I’d never thought of the warehouse as special: just a dank cellar behind the store full of barrels. But Melody grinned like a little girl at a theme park while she strolled around the undercroft.
‘Wow! It’s like living in a castle, or something! Don’t you ever wanna just live down here?’
‘Not really. It’s dark, and it’s wet.’
‘Come on, dude, you’re ruining the fun. Hey, do you mind giving me a couple of minutes?’
She made it sound so ordinary. Like she was someone I’d known for years. And not some stranger asking me to leave her alone in our cellar full of antique whiskies.
‘Wouldn’t you rather that I stayed?’ I offered, feebly.
‘Thanks, Simon. Hey: if I steal anything, at least you’ll have a good story to give the cops. I’ll be good. Girl scouts honor.’
All I could do was nod. ‘Okay.’
‘Great. I’ll treat you to a burger later, okay? Promise. Just do me a favor: no peeking, all right?’
‘If you say so.’
‘Thanks.’ She smiled, and I walked back towards the shop.
I sat behind the counter, waited. My eyes drifted toward the monitor hidden under the desk: a tiny cathode ray, outputting in fuzzy, faded colours. The security feed.
There was a camera in the warehouse.
The obvious thought burst into my mind, causing sweat to coat the skin underneath my shirt. How often would I get a chance to watch the most beautiful woman in the world undress? I shuddered, wishing I hadn’t thought it. She’d been nothing but polite the whole time. Not pushy, or demanding. She’d treated me like a real human being, not a walking cash register, and that was a lot more than a lot of customers managed. No. She’d treated me like a human being, and I was going to show her the same courtesy.
I stared at the clock on the wall, watched the hands creep forward.
How long was she going to take?
Maybe just a quick peek? It wasn’t like she was going to know?
I flipped to the camera in the warehouse.
Melody was standing in the middle of the room. I watched as she slipped out of the t-shirt, slid the jeans down her thighs. Oh, my God. Skin taut over muscle, curves swaying as she undressed. I put my fist into my mouth, bit so hard it would leave a mark, just to stop myself from weeping.
Then she took off her skin.
She made it look easy, just like she had with her clothes. She reached up, grabbed the spot under one of her shoulders and pulled, and her body fell away like an old jacket to reveal what she was underneath. Where Melody Anders had once been there was only a bundle of copper fur.
At first, I thought it was a cat. Then I saw it scamper out of the pile of clothes, and I realised cats didn’t have such bushy tails. And they usually only had one.
I watched, dumbfounded, unable to pull away from the screen. The fox that had been a woman bounded across the floor the warehouse shop on all fours. Both its tail twitched with excitement as its jaws reached out and twisted the tap on a cask of Glenmorangie and lapped at the contents with a delicate pink tongue.
Then it stopped. Twitched its nose. Cocked its head. Stared upwards. Right at the camera in the corner
Right at me.
Chartreuse eyes gleaming brightly as gemstones, burrowing into my brain. Melody’s eyes. Or at least, they were the same colour, the same shape, but the expression in them was different. Not friendly, or cheerful, or kind. These eyes were cold as stone. As they focused on me, pierced me through the camera feed, I felt a chill run through me. As if I could feel the raw hurt behind those eyes, and the seething, boiling outrage in the fox’s heart.
The camera feed went out, replaced by the hazy blur of static.
Oh, God. Had she seen me?
I turned off the monitor, like I was trying to hide what I’d done, and headed out onto the floor, just in time to see Melody open the door, wearing a different coat and skirt.
‘Well, then, Mr McTavish,’ she said brusquely as if her previous good cheer had melted in the air. ‘I’ll not take up any more of your time.’
‘Please, I didn’t mean to spy, it was an accident, I…’
‘I’ll certainly take a bottle of the Kinkell, and a few of these.’ She pointed idly at the bottles behind her as if she didn’t even care which ones she bought. ‘If you’d be kind enough to gift wrap them for me, I’d appreciate it. Linda will give you the address, you can forward them to there.’
‘Of course, Melody, I—.’
‘I’ll be sure to recommend you, Mr McTavish.’
‘Thank you.’ I offered her my hand. She looked at it, grimaced. I couldn’t even look her in her eyes as she shook my hand gingerly as if she was touching a slug.
She froze her grip, pulled me towards her. Whispered into my ear, her voice as cold and dangerous as a knife in my heart.
‘I know what you saw. And I’m gonna let it slide because you were kind. Just this once. But if you ever tell anyone— and I mean, if you tell a single living soul, for as long as you live— I’ll know. And you will regret it. Do you understand?’
I nodded, unable to look her in the eye.
She squeezed my hand. Her grip was iron as I felt her fingers dig into my palm. ’Promise me.’
I winced. I couldn’t feel my hand. ‘I promise.’
‘Good.’ She relaxed her grip. She smiled at me. At least, her mouth smiled. Her eyes had the same stony look that the fox had given me through the camera, as cold and uncaring as winter. ‘Take care of yourself, Mr McTavish.’
She walked away, opened the door, and left. It was several minutes before I moved.
I tried to put the whole thing out of my mind. I tried to think about it as if Melody Anders was just another unhappy customer, storming out of the shop for no good reason. It helped if I thought about her as the spoiled prima donna everyone expects Hollywood A-listers to be, instead of the women I’d actually met.
Callum asked me about her in the pub, a week or so later. He wasn’t the first. A few people heard about her visit, and they asked me what she was like. I just said she was nice. There didn’t seem any point in saying anything else.
Maybe I got tired of people asking me. Maybe my head was fuzzy from a few pints too many. Either way, something inside of me rebelled.
‘She’s a fox,’ I said
‘Aye.’ Callum leered at me, nudged my arm with his elbow. ‘You’re telling me!’
‘No, I mean really. She turned into a real, flesh-and-blood fox. Red hair and bushy tail.’
Callum frowned and squinted at me. ‘What on earth are you talking about, Simon?’
I sighed. There didn’t seem any point trying to explain to him. I ordered another round instead.
I didn’t give her much thought after that. I didn’t want to think about Melody Anders after that day, or the hurt look that she’d given me before she walked out of my shop. I learned to live with it. The tourist season came and went. We did pretty well, as it happened. Maybe she was good as her word and told all her friends about us. Perhaps she gave us a bump on Twitter. I didn’t have the heart to check.
I didn’t see her again until some night after work, a few months later, when I was skimming through channels on the telly, looking for something to watch while I cooked dinner. I stumbled on one of her films: one of the romantic comedies. There she was on my screen, just like I’d seen her, copper hair and Chartreuse eyes, having a pleasant conversation with an unspeakably handsome man that I half-recognised.
And then she turned and looked at me.
I blinked, thinking for a moment I’d imagined it. But there she was, staring at me out of the screen, eyes smouldering. Her whole body was taut, rigid. And when she spoke her voice was a harsh yapping sound, more animal than human.
‘You promised not to tell anyone. You broke your promise. But I won’t break mine, Simon.’
Then, like someone had flipped a switch, she went back to the conversation with the man onscreen.
For a moment I sat there, frozen, wondering if I’d imagined it. Then I went to bed.
The next day, on the way to work, I noticed they’d put out a new poster on the bus stop. Some new sci-fi film coming soon: an image of a red planet, a man in a spacesuit, a woman’s face looking down at him.
Before I could look away, the face on the poster twisted towards me. Eyes flashing at me, radiating hate.
I skipped the bus. But it wasn’t the only poster on the way to work. Nor was it the last time I saw her.
On most days I can get by without getting the worst of it, so long as I don’t read newspapers and I’m careful which websites I go to. But every now and then, a bus will go by, or I’ll see a billboard or some little flash of video, and there she is, just for a moment: Melody Anders, staring at me, her face twisted in hatred, and I’m reminded that so long as I live, she will make me pay.