Book five of The Temple of the Blind series is almost here! I’ve been hard at work putting the finishing touches on it, scouring for errors, formatting it, getting it just right. I still have a lot to do, and I don’t like putting a date on these things. Call it superstition, if you like. I just don’t want to jinx it. But I do hope to have more details to share very soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d spend a little time reacquainting you with the very first book in the series, The Box. For those of you who’ve already read book one, consider it a flashback, a little reminder of where it all began. For the rest of you, well, I hope you’ll check it out. What follows is nothing less than the entire first two chapters. Read on. Let me tell you the beginning of a story. And I hope you’ll let me tell you the rest of the story as well…
The Box: Book One of The Temple of the Blind
by Brian Harmon
It was just a stupid wooden box.
But it was also a mystery. It was not just that Albert didn’t know where it came from or how it found its way into his locked car while he was in class. It was not just the cryptic markings etched into its sides. It was not even that he still didn’t know what was inside. It was the sum of all of these things. It was the fact that nothing about the box was obvious. It was an enigma literally locked up within itself…and that was irresistiblyfascinating.
He had been studying it all afternoon. He’d already missed lunch and if he didn’t watch the time he’d be eating dinner from a vending machine. He’d thought of little else since returning from his class, and he didn’t even know if there was anything to be learned from it. Yet each time he walked away, he soon found himself back at his desk, staring again at the box.
It was a ten-inch cube with no apparent seam to indicate a lid and no visible hinges. He had turned it over and over in his hands and could not determine how it was supposed to open. Yet there was something inside. Things rattled when he shook it. Also, on one side there was a lock, which indicated that the box did indeed open, but the revolving brass plate made a mystery of which end belonged up. The keyhole was about the size of a nickel, with a narrow slit suggesting that the key was very simple, perhaps just a narrow piece of flat metal, but he was unable to pick the lock with a pocketknife.
With the exception of a few small scars in the wood, there were no distinguishing marks on the keyhole side of the box. On each of the other five sides, however, someone had used a sharp object to carve into the wood. On three of these sides were written strange cryptic messages while the last two displayed something that appeared to be a sort of map.
He leaned back in his chair and tried to focus. He never before thought of inanimate objects as having personality, but this box did. He felt almost that it enjoyed being mysterious, that it mocked his ignorance. It was like a deeply intriguing character in a really good mystery novel. But in a mystery novel, the secrets are always eventually revealed. Whatever secrets this box held might never be relinquished, might not even exist, as far as he knew. And that made the mystery all the more exquisite.
Derek, Albert’s roommate, entered the room and dropped his keys onto his desk. “You still staring at that thing?”
Albert glanced at the clock. It was already almost five. “Yep.”
“I think you’re making way too much out of this. Somebody probably got the wrong car or something.”
Albert did not respond. It was a possibility he’d more than considered. After all, it was only early September, just a couple short weeks into his first semester here at
. Having come from as far north as St. Louis, he knew no one and hadn’t made more than a handful of acquaintances, none of whom knew him well enough to distinguish his car from all the others that occupied the parking lot the previous evening. Whoever left the box could very well have meant to leave it in someone else’s car. Briar Hills University
“I wouldn’t stress about it.”
Albert did not turn around. He could hear the familiar tones as Derek checked his cell phone for voicemail. He’d only been living with Derek Clarnet for three and a half weeks, but he already knew his every routine by heart. Every time he returned from class he would walk straight to his desk and drop his keys and wallet. Then he would always reach for his cell phone and check his voicemail. He never took it with him to class for some reason. If there were any messages that required a response, he would do so. And he would always play Solitaire while he talked on the phone. Every time, as soon as he was finished dialing, he would sit down at his computer and load the game. The moment he hung up, he would turn it off. It didn’t matter whether he was losing or winning. Once he was done with that he would pocket the phone and leave through the bathroom to visit with Scott and David, their suitemates in the next room. He would return after a while for his keys and wallet and then disappear until later that evening, anywhere between eight and eleven, depending on how much homework awaited him. He would then sit at his desk and work until exactly , when he would go straight to bed. He rose every morning at a and showered and shaved. He left for his first class right at . He always ate lunch at eleven. He always ate dinner at . He was, without a doubt, the most boring human being Albert had ever met in his life, and he was actually surprised at how annoying that was.
“‘See Carrie,’” Derek read aloud.
Albert realized that he was reading the Post-It he’d left on his keyboard and sat up. “Oh yeah. Carrie from across the hall. She was looking for you while you were at dinner.”
“Did she say what she wanted?”
Albert shook his head. “Nope.” And I didn’t care to ask, he thought. He’d recognized the girl as one of the four who lived in the suite across the hall, but he did not know her name until she asked him if he would tell Derek that “Carrie was looking for him.” She was a very pretty brunette, petite, with shy mannerisms and a freckled face.
Derek said nothing more. He returned the phone to his desk and then stepped into the bathroom and locked the door. At six-foot-three, he appeared awkward at first sight. He was scrawny, almost geeky, but with his neat hair and piercing brown eyes, he was still fairly handsome. He was also very charming when he wanted to be. Albert had been sharing this room with him for only a short time, but it was already perfectly clear how they were going to get along. The two of them could coexist peacefully enough; their different interests made this room one of the only places on campus where they were ever likely to cross paths. Albert was a computer science major. Derek was a business major. Albert liked to read; Derek liked to go out. They would never be friends. In fact, Albert could hardly stand the guy. Besides his maddeningly boring routines, he was arrogant, self-centered, stubborn, closed-minded, cold natured and lacked any real sense of humor. Yet he was manipulative. He could suddenly become the most lovable human being alive when he wanted something, a tactic that Albert found dazzlingly obnoxious.
Albert had already noticed the time Derek was spending across the hall, trying his best to turn on the charm for Carrie and her suitemates. The names on their doors were Carrie, Danielle, Gail and Tanya. He was pretty sure that Gail was the heavyset blonde and now he knew which one was Carrie, but he still did not know which of the remaining two was Danielle and which was Tanya.
Derek returned from the bathroom, snatched his keys off the desk and left the room without speaking a word. A moment later his voice drifted back from across the hall.
Albert spent no time wondering about Derek or Carrie. He turned his attention back to the box and immersed himself again in its curious secrets.
He’d questioned everyone he knew about the box. He even called his parents and sister to see if they knew anything about it, half expecting it to be some sort of bizarre, belated birthday present, but no one knew anything about it. Everyone seemed to have the same opinion: that someone left it there by mistake.
He supposed he could just break the box open. He could smash it or saw through it. It was only wood. But he did not want to damage it until he’d had a chance to find the sender. After all, it might be important to somebody. Besides, he didn’t want to destroy any of the markings before he could decipher them.
Each of the box’s three messages was written using only straight lines roughly gouged into the wood. This left some characters frustratingly ambiguous. On one side, for example, there were ten characters arranged in three rows. To Albert, they appeared to read,
V I I
I O O S T
but it was difficult to be certain. It was impossible to tell whether some of these characters represented numbers or letters. The straight vertical lines could have been the number one or the letter I, for example. Or even a lower-case L. The S could have been a five. The two Os in the bottom line were drawn as squares, and could have been zeros instead, or for all he knew they could actually have been intended as squares. There was simply no way to know for sure, which made the clue that much more puzzling.
He had pondered over these three lines for hours now, trying to decipher them. The middle line could have been the Roman numeral seven, but with nothing else to go on, and no idea how to decipher the other two, he had no way of knowing for certain. It could be a V and an eleven. For that matter, the lines comprising the V were slightly crossed at the bottom. It could even have been a sloppy X.
Frustrated, he turned the box around.
Perhaps the most haunting of the messages was written on the side opposite the keyhole. Here there were five lines. The first four were complete words. From top to bottom they read HELP, COME, TOGETHER and YESTERDAY. The fifth line was not a word, but just three letters: G, N and J.
These lines were much easier to read than the previous three, even with their straight-line lettering, but with the legibility came a haunting feeling. Help. Come. It was as though someone were calling out to him for something. But what could yesterday mean? Was it literal? If so, he’d received the box the previous evening, so yesterday would have been two days ago. Or did it mean the past in general? Help come together yesterday. It made no sense. And how did the last line fit in? Perhaps it was someone’s or something’s initials.
The final side of the box was carved with only seven letters, scrawled across the surface diagonally from corner to corner, in larger letters than the other messages.
B R A N D Y R
He thought that he recognized these letters. It looked like a name. Brandy R. He knew a Brandy R. Or at least he’d met a Brandy R. Brandy Rudman was his lab partner in Chemistry. She was a sophomore, one year ahead of him and likewise a year older, nearly twenty, while he was barely nineteen, yet she could have passed as a sixteen-year-old high school student, small and girlish with a soft face and small, modest figure. She was very pretty. He had not expected to find a lab partner so quickly, but she was sitting in front of him on that first day and when the instructor told them to pair off she turned around, scanning the other students in the class until her pretty eyes fell on him. “You mind?” she asked simply, to which he replied a startled “Sure.”
It was just dumb luck for him. He’d been attending classes for not yet a day and a half at a school where he recognized no one and instead of being the last lonely student standing around looking for a pair that would allow him to join, as he’d expected to be, he found himself paired off almost at once and with a very pretty young woman. And by even greater luck, she had so far turned out to be a very lovely person to know as well, friendly, kind, outgoing and fun.
His Chemistry lab was scheduled for Tuesdays and Thursdays at in the morning. Today was Thursday. That morning he stuffed the box inside his green backpack and took it with him to class, intending to see if she knew anything about it, but she was as ignorant of its origins as everyone else he’d spoken with, his last chance at an answer severed at its root.
“Must be another Brandy R.,” she’d concluded, peering down into his backpack at the strange, wooden box. “I’ve never seen it before. It was in your car?”
“Yeah. All the doors were still locked. Nothing broken.”
Weird was right. It was also disappointing. A part of him had hoped for an excuse to get to know Brandy a little better.
Albert turned and looked at the clock again. It was after five now. He needed to go eat dinner. He usually tried to go before Derek returned. The less time he spent with him the better.
He stood up and stretched. Some time away from the box would do him good. He was becoming frustrated with it again. Perhaps everyone was right, perhaps the box was never meant for him and he would never understand where it came from or what it meant. But that thought became like a looming darkness. He did not want to be left ignorant. He wanted to know about this box. He wanted to understand it. He didn’t like to leave mysteries unsolved. It simply wasn’t his nature.
He was reaching for his shoes when the phone rang. It would probably be somebody looking for Derek. Somebody was always looking for Derek. It was funny how Albert was always looking to avoid him.
He sat down on the bed and answered the phone.
“Is Albert there?”
It was a woman’s voice, feminine, petite, pretty. “Speaking,” he replied.
“Hi. This is Brandy. From Chem.”
Albert stood up again, surprised. They exchanged numbers the first day of class in case either of them missed and needed notes, but he never expected her to use it. “Hi.”
“Hey, did you find anything out about that box?”
“No. Not a thing.” His heart sped up a notch when she told him who she was. Now it jumped again, shifting from second to third.
Brandy was quiet for so long that he began to think the line was disconnected, but before he could ask if she was still there she said, “There was something in my car when I left class today.”
Fourth gear. He started walking across the room, pacing as he sometimes did when he was on the phone. “What did you get?”
Instead of answering, she said, “You’re in Lumey, right?”
“That’s right.” Lumey Hall was the most expensive dormitory on campus. He’d spent the extra money for the semi-private bathroom and coed environment. From his first tour of the Hill he did not like the prison-like feel of the community halls elsewhere on campus, so he forked over nearly twice what other freshmen were paying in the Cube. Over here, two rooms made up a suite and a bathroom connected the two, so only four people shared facilities, instead of an entire floor. Also, unlike any other building, Lumey was entirely coed, hence the fact that there were girls living right across the hall from him. And since Lumey was usually reserved for students with a junior standing or higher, he was very fortunate to obtain his room. It turned out that the freshmen dormitories were overcrowded. In the next few years they would probably have to build a new one.
“Second floor. Room two-fourteen.”
“Meet me in the second floor lounge. I’ll be there in about twenty minutes.”
She hung up without saying goodbye and he stood staring at the dead phone, his mind a cyclone of thoughts. He was about to get information about the box. Maybe together they would figure out what it was and who gave it to him.
Twenty minutes turned out to be twenty-five. Albert would be the first to agree that five minutes was hardly an eternity, but Brandy knew something about the box, something she was not willing to disclose over the phone. Now every minute passed like an hour as he sat in the second floor lounge of Lumey Hall, waiting to see what she knew.
There was something in my car when I left class today. Those words kept ringing in his ear. He remembered how he’d unlocked his car the previous evening and found the box sitting in the driver’s seat. It was a frightening experience. He did not even see it until he opened the door. Brandy at least found her package in broad daylight, but it still must have been unnerving, perhaps even more so since whoever left it there was bold enough to get into her car in the middle of a busy school day.
The box had Brandy’s name on it. Now Brandy had found something too, and in exactly the same way, no less. Perhaps it was no accident after all that he found himself in possession of the box.
At the other end of the room, two boys were playing table tennis. One was a skinny blond kid, his face a spattering of pimples. The other was of an average build with a red goatee that wasn’t quite thick enough yet to completely cover his chin. Nearby, a skinny girl with raven black hair cut short enough to stand on end sat in one of the plush chairs watching them. She was close enough to them in such an empty room to indicate that she was with them, but her eyes kept drifting from the boys to the door to her watch and back again, suggesting that she, too, was waiting for someone.
The steady plink-plunk sound of the ping-pong ball could be annoying at times, but tonight Albert found it and the occasional outbursts of frustration and excitement from the boys relaxing, almost hypnotic. It was a perfect distraction for his senses. Too much silence made him think too much and just lately that made his head hurt.
He was sitting off to one side of the room, positioned so that he could see out of the lounge and down the hallway to the main doors. Lumey was built on the slope of a hill, so on the back side of the building the first floor was the ground floor, but on the front—the side he was facing now—the main doors led in on the second floor. The visitor parking lot and the meters were located on this side of the building. Therefore, he’d determined that this was the direction from which Brandy would most likely enter.
He spotted her as she was climbing the steps. She was wearing a dark shirt and jeans, different from the shorts and tank top she’d been wearing that morning in lab. She was clenching a black leather purse in her left hand and carried a cigarette in her right.
Albert thought that there was something stiff about her. She looked tense. He watched her as she paused at the ashtray outside the door. She drew one last time from the cigarette and then crushed it. As she did so, she turned and looked around, as though she expected someone to be watching her.
Of course there was someone watching her, but he didn’t think that it was him she was looking around for.
Perhaps he was imagining it. Maybe she heard something somewhere, someone yelling or a car horn blaring. Maybe he was simply looking for things that weren’t there. Puzzling over the box for so many hours had caused his imagination to run a little wild.
At last she opened the door and walked in. Almost immediately, her eyes found him. Albert stood up and greeted her and immediately the smell of her cigarette tickled his nose. He was not a smoker and did not like the smell of cigarettes, but his mother smoked and he was used to it enough that he was not really bothered by it. He always said it would have to be a pretty fine line between yes and no to turn down a date based on whether a girl smoked.
“Sorry I’m late,” she said as she sat down.
She did not relax at first. She held her purse in her lap and looked at him. Albert realized right away that there was something cold about her, as though he had done her some grave evil of which he was not yet aware. Her eyes were a soft and gorgeous shade of blue behind the gold-rimmed lenses of her small glasses, beautiful enough to be hypnotizing, but when she leaned forward they were focused so fiercely on him that it made him want to shrink away. “I’m just going to say right now that if this is some kind of practical joke I’m not going to be happy. There are laws against breaking into someone’s car, you know.”
Albert stared at her, his own dark eyes wide and shocked. Those words struck him like a hammer. He’d never even considered a practical joke. That cast a whole new light on the subject. What if someone was trying to pull something on him? What if someone somewhere was laughing his ass off at his silly obsession with that nonsense box? “If it’s a practical joke,” he said, almost numb with the realization of that possibility, “then we’re two cheeks on the same butt of it.”
Brandy watched his expression as he spoke, her eyes stony and piercing. Finally, after a moment, she laughed. It was a quick sound, a huff of air, almost a sigh. In an instant her features melted back into that sweet, ladylike girlishness that he’d seen so often in the classroom. She relaxed back into her chair, her posture slightly slouched, comfortable. She gazed at him through her glasses, her eyes once more soft and sweet. Her hair was very light blonde, a little past shoulder-length, straight and smooth with short bangs. She was wearing a simple, short-sleeved shirt, black with red patterns around the neck and sleeves. Albert couldn’t stop himself from noticing the low neckline. She was not big-breasted, but neither was she shapeless. She was quite pretty, blessed with a girlish figure and a soft and delicate complexion.
Overall, she was a sharp contrast to him. Whereas her hair and eyes were light and fair, his were dark and deep. Her nose and chin were soft and round, while his were straight and pronounced, almost pointed. He was rather short, although still a couple inches taller than she, and a little stocky, and he appeared bulky compared to the soft curves of her petite figure.
“I’m sorry,” said Brandy. “I don’t mean to accuse you of anything. I wasn’t trying to be a bitch.”
“No, don’t worry about it.”
“It’s just kind of scary, you know. Somebody got into my car while I was in class.”
“I understand. I mean this is some pretty weird stuff.”
“I almost threw it away. I didn’t want it, really. It kind of gave me the creeps.”
These words were like a slap in the face. She almost threw it away? “What did you get?”
She opened her purse and withdrew a small brown pouch. “I feel silly even bringing this to you, but I guess it sort of belongs to you.” She opened the pouch, which appeared to be made of soft, aged leather, pulled closed with a simple piece of coarse twine, and then emptied it into her left hand. She turned her eyes up to his as she held it out to him. “It’s a key.”
Albert stared at it for a moment before taking it from her. It was a flat piece of brass with a simple ring for a grip and a single tooth on each side. Just looking at it, he could understand why he was unable to pick the lock with the pocketknife. Even though the key was flat instead of round or grooved, it still required teeth to work the tumblers inside the lock.
He reached out and took it from her warm palm. He felt a million miles away, as though he were staring at it through a television set instead of holding it in his own fingers. It didn’t feel real. He turned it over, almost mesmerized, and suddenly he was drawn back with a slap. Seven letters were scratched onto this side of the key, just like on one side of the box. But instead of B R A N D Y R, the key read A L B E R T C.
“Albert Cross?” Brandy guessed.
“Seeing as how you’re the only Brandy R. I know and I’m probably the only Albert C. you know,” he replied, “I’d say it’s a pretty good bet.”
“Do you think whoever gave us these things got them mixed up? Mine had your name and yours had mine?”
Albert shook his head. “But then we wouldn’t know where to find the other half.”
“Yeah. That’s true.” Brandy’s eyes dropped to the backpack at Albert’s feet. “Did you bring the box?”
“Can I see it?”
“Of course.” Albert unzipped the bag, removed the box and handed it to her. “After my American History class last night I walked out to my car and it was just waiting for me. I’m in there from six to nine. It was in the driver’s seat. I always lock my doors.”
Brandy held the box in her lap as she studied it. “My car was in the commuter lot next to Wuhr.” The
was the science and math building on campus. It was where their Chemistry classrooms were located. “It was right there in my driver’s seat after class today.” Daniel R. Wuhr Building
“Did you have your doors locked?”
Brandy shrugged, almost embarrassed. “They were locked when I came back out, but I have a bad habit of not locking my doors. Whoever put the bag there could’ve locked them.”
Albert nodded. “I can’t be a hundred percent sure of mine, either, actually. I say I always lock them, but every now and then…”
Brandy stared at the box as she held it in her lap, her eyes fixed on the letters of her name. “I didn’t say anything earlier, but when you showed this to me the first time there was just something eerie about it. It gave me chills. I didn’t even want to touch it.” She turned it over in her hands, looking at each side. “I’m not sure I want to be holding it now.”
Albert said nothing. He watched her expression for a moment and then followed her gaze to the box.
“Brandy R.,” she read.
“Yeah. I guess we know for sure what that side means now.”
“You haven’t figured any of the other sides out?”
“Nope. Maybe they’ll make sense once we open it.” Albert looked down at the key he was holding. He could feel a cold tingle of excitement rising up his spine.
“Maybe.” Brandy turned the box again, observing the other sides. “Well these are all Beatles songs.”
Albert’s eyes snapped from the key to the box. “What?”
“‘Help’, ‘Come Together’ and ‘Yesterday’ are all songs by the Beatles.”
Albert stared at the words on the side of the box. “Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure.” She glanced up at him, met his eyes for just a brief moment, then looked back down, as if she detected the hungry attention her revelation had drawn from him and was disturbed by it. “I like music. I listen to a lot of it. All different kinds. I don’t know what ‘G N J’ means, though.”
Albert felt numb. “The Beatles.” He might have recognized country or pop titles, but The Beatles?
“That doesn’t mean that’s what these mean,” Brandy explained. “It could just be a coincidence. But they areBeatles songs.”
“Wow. I’m impressed.”
Brandy looked up at him again. This time she smiled a little.
“Any clue about the other side?”
Brandy turned the box again and tried to read it. “Just looks like garbage to me.”
Albert nodded. “Yeah. Me too.”
“But these last two sides are a map, right?”
Albert nodded. “Yeah, but I don’t know what it’s a map of.”
“Maybe it’s inside.”
“Maybe.” He looked down at the key again. “Let’s see.”
Brandy looked up at him, but made no move to hand him the box. “Do you think we should?”
“What do you mean?”
Brandy shrugged. She looked extremely uncomfortable. “I’m just not sure about this. Somebody went to a lot of trouble to set this all up. Why?”
Albert stared back at her, unable to answer.
“I mean this thing still gives me the creeps. It’s just too weird. It’s like something out of a… I don’t know. An Alfred Hitchcock movie or… Or a Stephen King short story. It’s just not natural, you know.”
Albert looked down at the box. She was right. It was veryunnatural. Inside, he’d understood that all along.
“I don’t want to sound crazy, but there’s a part of me that really thinks that maybe we should just throw it away. Forget about it.”
This suggestion hit Albert like a punch in the gut. How could he just forget about it? That box had commanded his every thought since he first laid eyes on it. But then again, wasn’t that reason enough to do just as she suggested? Perhaps she was right. Perhaps it was unhealthy, even dangerous.
The two of them sat there, each of them staring at the box.
“There’s also a part of me,” Brandy added, a little cautiously, “that still doesn’t trust you.”
Albert looked up at her, surprised.
“I mean I don’t know anything about this. One day, out of the blue, you show up to class with this box with my name on it and say you found it in your car. After class I go to my car and find a key with your name on it. And I really don’t know you.”
Albert lowered his eyes all the way to the floor. She certainly made a point. “That’s true.” He nodded and looked back up at her. “I guess I really can’t expect you to trust me. I really don’t have reason to trust you.”
Brandy started to say something, but she stopped herself.
“As far as I know, you could’ve left that box in my car. After all, I have no way of knowing whether you’re telling me the truth about how you came by this key. For the same reason, you have no way of knowing how I came by that box or that I didn’t put the key in your car.”
“Yesterday you beat me to class and I left before you did…”
Albert was impressed. She’d really thought this through. “But I could’ve had an accomplice.”
He leaned back against the cushions of the couch and stared down at the key. Three more people had entered the room since Brandy arrived. Two were young men who were speaking a language he could not place and playing a game of chess. The third was a young woman with a huge mane of curly black hair and a surprisingly unattractive face. She was sitting alone by one of the windows with a Dean Koontz novel in her hand. The girl who was with the ping-pong players still seemed to be waiting on whoever it was she was expecting. “You don’t really seem like the kind of person who would ever want to do me wrong,” he said at last.
“Neither do you,” said Brandy.
“But we don’t know each other.”
Albert continued to stare at the key.
“But so what if we’re both telling the truth?” Brandy asked after a moment. “Then what? Somebody sent these things. Somebody scratched our names into them. That person knows what cars we drive, what classes we have, when we’re in class and God only knows what else. So then who was it? Why would they do something like this? I’d rather think that you were trying to prank me. The fact that someone else out there is capable of this sort of stunt is way worse.”
Albert could think of no reply for her. Come to think of it, how could anyone have known to leave that box in his car the previous night? It was the first time he’d ever driven to his night class. He didn’t know until the previous weekend that the campus police stopped ticketing after . He didn’t even know he was going to drive until just before he left. He’d intended to drive only on rainy days, but he decided to see how much time it saved him.
That meant that someone must have been watching either him or his car that evening. The thought of a pair of eyes lurking unseen somewhere out there sent a shiver down his spine.
Two more students walked into the room together. One was a stout young man with short black hair and a thick, black goatee. The other was a rather plain-looking blonde girl with remarkably large breasts. The shorthaired girl stood up from the couch as they approached and greeted them both with a hug.
“So what do we do?” Brandy asked after a moment.
Albert held up the key. “I guess we open it,” he replied. “We’re both here. We have it. What can it hurt to open it and look inside? Maybe we’ll figure out what it all means.”
Brandy held onto the box, still not sure. She looked at the key for a moment, then looked up at Albert and said in a voice that was nearly a whisper, “What if it’s a bomb or something?”
Albert hadn’t considered a bomb. He stared down at the box, his thoughts whirling. Why would it be a bomb? But why not? Why crash airplanes into the
? There was no end to the number of horrors that could be hidden in a box like this. He could almost imagine turning the key and watching it fly open as some hellish creature burst from within, its vicious jaws tearing the flesh from his body before he knew what was upon him. World Trade Center
He shook these thoughts away and met Brandy’s eyes. “If it is,” he decided at last, “we probably won’t feel it.”
Brandy’s face paled at the thought of such an abrupt and brutal end. “I guess that’s true,” she said after a moment.
“With or without you,” Albert said. “I think I have to open it. I have to know what’s going on.”
Brandy gazed back at him. “Why?”
“It’s just who I am. I’ve always loved a good mystery. I read mysteries, I watch them, I can almost always figure out who did it.” He looked down at the box. “This is the first real mystery I’ve ever come across. I guess I feel like, even if it’s dangerous—stupid even—to open it, I want to.” He shrugged and lowered his eyes. He felt foolish. “I feel like, above all else, I wantthis to be something real, you know?”
Brandy stared at him, surprised. “Yeah. I guess I do.”
“I’m not saying we should. I don’t know. Probably we shouldn’t. I’m just saying I want to.”
She nodded. “Okay.” She moved the box closer to him, resting it on her knees, and then turned it so that the keyhole faced him. “I guess I do too.”
He looked up at her, relieved that she understood him. He wanted to ask her if she was sure, but he didn’t dare tempt her to reconsider. “Ready?”
Again, she nodded.
Slowly, Albert slid the key into the lock and began to turn it. For a moment he could feel the key searching for the slot—he still did not know which end was up—and then it fell into place and he felt the lock begin to turn. It moved sluggishly, as though stiff with age. When he had turned it a complete ninety degrees, a firm click announced that the lock was sprung and the key stopped in his fingers.
The two of them sat there for a moment, staring at the box. It was unlocked now, or at least they could only assume that it was, but they still didn’t know how it was supposed to open.
“Now what?” Brandy asked, looking at Albert.
He did not know.
“I heard it unlock.”
“So did I.”
“So how does it open?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I couldn’t figure that out before when I was looking at it.” He began to pull the key from the keyhole and after a moment of fumbling, the box began to open. It was now that it finally made sense to him. The box appeared seamless when he first examined it, except of course for those seams that one would expect to find in a wooden box, those where the wood was glued together. There were no hinges because the box did not have the kind of lid he’d been looking for. Instead, it consisted of two separate pieces, one inside the other. As he pulled the key out, the entire front side slid outward from the rest of the box.
“I see,” Albert said. “It’s like a drawer.” It quickly became obvious that the box was lying on its side and he picked it up and turned it. Brandy’s name was carved on the top of the box while part of the map made up the bottom.
“How’d you know to pull on the key like that?”
Albert glanced up at her. “I didn’t. I was just trying to take it out.”
She did not respond and Albert felt an odd sense of guilt. He could almost read her thoughts as she wondered if perhaps he’d been aware of how the box worked all along. “It’s a really good fit,” he observed, trying to keep her attention on the box itself. “You couldn’t tell that the wood wasn’t glued there, but it wasn’t stuck closed, either.” This was true. More true, in fact, than he cared to elaborate on. He pushed the box closed again for a moment and examined the seams. The fit was so perfect that there was not even the slightest movement when they were together, especially when the lock was turned. As he pulled it open again, he saw that there were small but formidable bolts on all four sides of the keyhole side of the inner box, and four no-doubt perfectly sized holes to receive the bolts in the outer box, like the deadbolt on a door, but four times as secure.
Still Brandy said nothing. Her silence felt like an accusation of some heinous crime for which he did not have an alibi.
Albert opened the box and peered inside. It would do no good to try and talk his way out of any suspicion. If she intended to blame him, there was nothing he could do to change her mind. The more he tried, the guiltier he would be perceived.
Besides, he knew he was innocent.
He hoped that opening the box would lead him to some answers, but as he gazed in at the contents, he quickly realized that there were only more questions within.
Random junk was all he found. There was a flat piece of rusted metal, a small stone, a dull metal object that he realized after a moment’s consideration was a brass button, a dirty black feather and a silver pocket watch that might have been an antique, but was corroded far beyond any real value.
“What is all that?” Brandy asked, leaning forward until their foreheads were almost touching. “Does it mean anything?”
Albert shook his head. He did not know. He reached in and removed the watch. Its lid was loose, but still intact. Carved into the front was an elegant letter G. It was dirty, as were all the objects in the box, as though they had been dropped in mud at some point, and he used his thumb to clean the dirt from the design. Did the “G” indicate the owner of the watch, he wondered, or the company that manufactured it? Maybe he would look it up on the Internet sometime. He opened the cover and was surprised to find that the glass was still intact. Except for its apparent age, it was in surprisingly good condition. He found the stem and tried to wind it, half expecting it to start working again, but the insides had apparently not aged as well as the rest. The hands would not turn.
“Is it broken?”
Albert nodded. “Yeah.” He handed it to her so that she could see it and then removed the feather. There was nothing very special about it. It wasn’t from a very large bird. It was dirty and rather ratty-looking, like it was simply plucked from the gutter somewhere and dropped into the box.
Brandy placed the watch back into the box and removed the button. There were no distinguishing markings on it. It appeared to be a simple, old-fashioned brass button.
Albert dropped the feather back into the box and withdrew the stone. It was dark gray in color, about an inch in length, semi-cylindrical, with a strange texture. There were small creases along the sides. He rubbed away the dirt with his thumb and forefinger and saw that both ends were rough, as though it had been broken from a larger object.
Brandy dropped the button back into the box. “Does this stuff make any sense to you?”
“Not a bit.” Albert dropped the stone back into the box and removed the final object. After turning it over in his fingers several times he concluded that it was the broken tip from some sort of knife. It was large enough to be from a dagger or a sword and, looking at the condition it was in, it certainly wasn’t stainless steel. The original blade could have been just about anything.
“It’s just junk.”
“I know.” Albert dropped the blade piece back into the box and fished out the button. As he examined it, four more people entered the room and sat down at the card table by the window. He recognized them immediately as the residents of the suite down the hall from his own. One of them was already shuffling a deck of cards and soon they would be immersed in a game. Albert saw them here often. Hearts seemed to be their game of choice, but he had already seen them play everything from Spades to Poker.
The room would only get more crowded as the night went on. By the only place that would be busier than the lounges was the computer room on the first floor. Albert tried to go there once just to check out the facilities, in case his own computer ever failed to meet his needs, and he was not even able to get in the door.
Brandy leaned back in the chair and looked sternly at Albert. “So what does it all mean then?”
“I don’t know.”
“Someone went to all the trouble of getting us together to open this fucking thing, so what are we supposed to get from it?”
Albert met her eyes for a moment and then dropped the button back into the box. He’d heard plenty of swearing in his life, as much from women as from men. Hell, his sister swore like a sailor when they were growing up. And he’d already heard Brandy swear plenty of times in the short time he’d been acquainted with her—she always seemed to be coming up with some delightfully creative expletive during their lab experiments—but it still surprised him somehow every time he heard something vulgar pass from her lips. She projected such a girlishly polite image that it was hard to imagine her as anything but young and innocent, virgin even. Of course, that wasn’t to say that it was unattractive by any means. On the contrary, he actually found it to be something of a turn-on.
“I really don’t know,” he said after a moment. “You’d think there’d be something more.”
Someone walked into the room and looked around, as though looking for someone. Albert glanced at her and recognized her as Gail from across the hall. He wondered vaguely if her presence here might indicate that Derek was no longer in her room. If so, he hoped he wasn’t hanging out when he returned to hisroom. After a quick look around, Gail turned and left the lounge. Whoever she was looking for obviously wasn’t here.
“This is ridiculous.” Brandy closed the box, lifted it off her knees and dropped it into his lap. “I don’t get it. I don’t really care to get it.” She grabbed her purse and stood up.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m leaving. You can keep all that. The key too. I’m not interested.”
Albert stared at her, surprised. “You’re not even curious?”
She half turned as she slipped the thin strap of her purse over her shoulder. For a moment she paused, as though struggling with herself. “Yes,” she said at last, her eyes fixed on the door. “If you come up with anything, let me know tomorrow in lecture.”
“Okay.” He could not believe she was just walking away from this. How could she? It was such a delicious mystery. Sure, the lack of answers inside the box was discouraging, even aggravating, but it was also all the more intriguing. These new questions were even more alluring than the first. How could anyone just walk away from such an enigma? Perhaps she was only being the more mature one, even the smarter one, but to just drop it and walk away? The very ability to do such a thing seemed so alien to him.
“I just don’t like it,” she explained before she walked away, as though she could feel the weight of his eyes and read the questions inside his head. “It’s just… I don’t know. It’s just too much. I don’t want to be a part of something I don’t know anything about.”
Albert nodded. He understood. It was probably the right thing to do. Nonetheless, he was disappointed.
“Bye.” Brandy walked out of the room as a very pretty redhead entered and dropped into one of the soft chairs with a textbook.
Albert watched her go without getting up. It felt surprisingly sad knowing that this mystery was once again his alone.
Want to know if Brandy changes her mind? Or what those mysterious clues carved into the box mean? Download The Box at any of these addresses:
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B004W0JGCW
Amazon Germany: https://www.amazon.de/dp/B004W0JGCW
Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-box-brian-harmon/1032774212