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 irresistibly
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
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
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 BriarHillsUniversity. 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
“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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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 DanielR.WuhrBuilding
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
“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
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,
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 are
“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.
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 very
unnatural. Inside, he’d understood that
“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
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
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
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 WorldTradeCenter? 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.
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
“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.
“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 want
this 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.
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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 his
room. 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
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