Faux-Victorian Mystery

Reads: 259  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
A very long short story, in which a reluctant hero comes to the aid of a lady of mystery.

Submitted: June 14, 2016

A A A | A A A

Submitted: June 14, 2016

A A A

A A A


It was a dark and stormy night, and Arthur Dwindle was about to declare the evening a total loss.  The box, sitting defiantly in the bright circle of light on his desk, remained locked.  Judging by the interval between sound and the hot white glare of lightning, which momentarily revealed the bookcase-lined study before it returned to murky obscurity outside the lamp’s light, the storm was finally moving away.  Then, just as his hand with the dentist’s pick was poised to probe the lock, another flash and nearly simultaneous crash of thunder showed that the storm was not quite through with him yet.

“Damn!” he exclaimed.  His hand involuntarily jerked back, knocking the still-smoking pipe from the ashtray and scattering hot ashes over the page of painstaking calculations he had performed while trying to fathom the secret of the jewel-like concentric dials on the front of the box, dials covered not in numbers, but in curious pictographs that resembled no system of writing or numerals that he, or apparently anyone else published or with a presence online, had ever encountered before.  The use of the dentist’s pick represented a certain failure of the imagination, and he found himself guiltily grateful for the interruption.  He carefully replaced the pick in its proper pouch among the collection of tools and then rewrapped the chamois leather case and put it aside.

He rose slowly from the ancient mahogany banker’s chair, the cracked leather upholstery of which was the color of dried blood in the uncertain light.  He raised his arms over his head, hands laced together, bending backwards to get the stiffness out of his back and neck.  Although not an old man, a lifetime among books and puzzles, never far from lamplight and rarely any nearer sun and air than what he encountered when opening or closing curtained windows, had lent him a rather stooped and peering demeanour that gave the appearance of age.  Not a strong man physically, he seemed someone whose vital energies had gone entirely to support the intellectual enterprises that were not only his passion, but his bread and butter as well.  Perhaps few men would have envied or even understood the manner in which he passed his days- and many nights- but he himself envied no man.

He checked a yawn, then pulled the grey cardigan sweater more closely around his thin shoulders.  He frowned at the ornate box that sat unrepentant on his desk.  The box, the mysterious box, with its inlaid tropical woods and jeweled dial, a masterpiece of the cabinet maker’s art.  The box that would not give up its secret, despite the hours of intense effort he had expended on it.  He gave the outermost dial a petulant spin with his index finger.  Tiny gears meshed smoothly as the inner dials began to turn as well.  The minute reflections from the jewels were mesmerizing as the dials spun, slowed, finally stopped.  Dwindle’s eyes widened.  His breath caught in his throat.  “Ah!” he breathed.

A chance alignment of the two outer dials revealed the secret of the lock.  Tiny glints of green stone matched up to represent the top half of a letter- ‘A’, wasn’t it?  It wasn’t a number combination that opened the box, then.  It would be a phrase.  Excitedly, he picked up the box, peering closely at the dials.  An automatic movement of his head brought the gold-filled half-frame reading glasses down from their perch on his bald pate to his thin nose.  He pushed delicately at the three inner rings of the lock, trying for the alignment that would prove his conjecture correct.  The upper half of the A, if indeed that was what it was, was an inlay of something that very much resembled greenstone, the color variant of Thomsonite found in only one place on earth.  Could it be that easy?  He ran his thin finger over the two inner races of the dial, looking for more evidence of the mottled stone.  He brushed past bright bits of what could only be emerald- how much had this thing cost to make, he wondered?  And what precious thing must it conceal?  His finger traced carefully around the next dial inward, looking for a matching stone, discarding with an impatient tap what he somewhat doubtfully identified as jade as his store of gemological knowledge quickly ran dry.  But most of the box’s dial appeared to be subtle jungle shades of green, bluish to yellowish to deepest bottle green.  Surely, though, here was another glinting inset bit of matching greenstone.  Carefully he pushed the third dial around to line it up with the first two.  And it was indeed an ‘A’, wasn’t it?  So it was a message that opened the box, but what was the message?  He could make nothing of the next letter position, if indeed that was how the thing worked.  He sought the bottom of the ‘A’ in the innermost ring.  The concentric rings meant that each ring inward from the first held fewer pictographs and he now was certain of what he was seeking.  Sure enough, a tiny bit of greenstone was quickly matched to the other three rings and became the bottom portion of a somewhat angular and stylized, but very recognizable ‘A’.  And that meant that the message began how?  But the next position to the right of the ‘A’ was a very beautiful, but completely meaningless, arrangement of green gemstones of all descriptions.

Could he be wrong?  He was about to give the dial another impatient spin when he noticed the alignment of  translucent yellow-green stones one position  down and to the right of the ‘A’.  Was this the vertical leg of an ‘L’?  He twisted dials again, finding the mates of the watery stones and confirmed that it was indeed an ‘L’.  And to the right, the beginnings of- was it another ‘L’? 

Painstakingly, frowningly, he matched veined and glinting minerals around the dial, letter by letter, absorbed and fascinated by the process, hardly noting the sequence of letters in his delight in the artistry of the mechanism.  Letter by letter, he worked it out, growing in confidence as he worked, with fewer and fewer mismatched stones and wrong turns until, at last, with a barely perceptible drop of tumblers, the dials stopped at a final ‘N’.  Blinking rapidly, he cast his mind back- what was the message? ‘A-L-L…’  The tumblers in his own mind clicked home and his frown deepened. ‘ALL HOPE ABANDON’?  Really.  Why tell him to abandon hope when he’d already solved it?  Even ‘X marks the spot’ would have shown more imagination, and incidentally, having more letters, been somewhat harder to crack.  Unless the message wasn’t meant for the one opening the box?

Shaking his head, he pushed the glasses more securely down on his nose and reached for the lid.  And stopped, recalling what the mysterious woman, veiled, dressed all in black, had said as she had hurriedly pressed the box into his startled hands only a day ago.  Putting a gloved finger under his chin to raise it, she held his watery gaze with her own violet eyes, intense under sooty lashes.  “You hold my life in your hands,” she had said.  The touch burned again, like fire, like ice, as he unconsciously put his finger to the place, remembering.  The box, that memory, the cream-colored, engraved card she had placed in his other hand, were all he had of her- except the additional memory of one calf, shapely in black nylon stretched nearly to translucence as she turned to go, that had raised strange stirrings in Dwindle’s mind.  And raised them once again, as he remembered.

Shivering slightly, he reached again for the box, gently prised up the top, which yielded with the smallest and smoothest of tugs, like a spoon being pulled from a jar of honey, and opened it to reveal- nothing at all.  The box was empty.  He leaned closer, to inspect the corners.  At the same instant, he felt the lightest of winds escape from the box, a mere breath too slight to have stirred the hairs of his head, had he any, but carrying with it delicate scents from the interior.  Surely that was sandalwood, rosewood, and raw cedar from the box itself?  And more- the breath of pines from a clouded forest, salt from a fresh sea breeze that made him catch his breath, dark earth and, perhaps, just a hint of jasmine- hadn’t she been wearing jasmine, eddied to him on the wind as she stood on his doorstep?

He reached for the engraved card.  It read:

Natasha Grimes

Dealer in Antiquities and Oriental Curiosities

Which lent legitimacy to her possession of the box, certainly, but explained nothing of the nighttime visit or the strange urgency in her voice as she entrusted the box, and oh by the way her life, to him.  What had she expected to find within it?  How disappointed would she be to hear that it had contained nothing?  Surely his role in the affair was ended with the opening of the box.  His reputation for expertise in the area of puzzles had to be the only reason he had been sought out in such a strange manner.  So there was nothing to do but return the box to its owner.  He looked again at the card.  On the back, in a woman’s confident, rounded hand, written with a medium nib and bold violet ink, was written: ‘I am staying at The Auk in King’s Ley’.  He sighed.  It was a longish walk with, apparently, no prospect of any sort of remuneration at the end of it.  He could hardly in good conscience demand payment for the conclusion of an investigation which had produced nothing and had, in fact, been a welcome diversion and rather fun.

Dwindle sighed again and pushed the glasses back up on his forehead.  He pinched the bridge of his nose, squeezed his eyes shut, frowned.  Then he carefully folded the glasses, tucked them back into the maroon leather, faux-crocodile case in his cardigan pocket and stood up.  Inclement night, long walk, long time since supper- had he even eaten?  He couldn’t remember.  It would at least be nice if his arthritis, having duly warned him of the impending storm, would retire from the field having done its job.  He rubbed the small of his back meditatively, estimating the distance to the village and the likely effect the walk would have on the pain.  It might almost be turned into an equation, he thought, so much pain per mile, with some factor included to account for the undoubtedly more painful return.  Perhaps the woman would have a car.  And be sufficiently grateful for nothing to dispatch it for the return journey.  He began another sigh, checked it mid-inhalation in irritation.  Much more hyperventilating, and he’d be starting off down the treacherous cliff-side road in a light-headed condition.

He picked up the box, tentatively sniffed the interior again, but the faery exhalation was no more.  Only the workshop aromas, pleasant enough, remained.  Gently, he closed the box.  The oiled click was as reassuring and solid as a bank vault’s.  He spun the dial, watched the minatory message dissolve into a random assortment of greenish gem chips.  Tucking it under his arm, he walked into the hall.  Hanging on the bentwood coat rack was his worsted muffler, freshly cleaned for the impending autumn season with its wind and precipitation.  In fact, it was more often worn indoors, as his was a drafty house and he found that if his receding chin with its dispirited handful of bristles was warm, the rest of him was warm as well.  He reached down the worn leather messenger bag from its place on the rack, the bag that had been his late father’s (and may actually have been a messenger’s bag in the late war- Da’s hints at a commission involving motorcycles and urgent summonses pointed in that direction).  The bag had accompanied him through his last year at university and subsequent graduate work, and into his semi-retired current existence.  He couldn’t remember the last time it had carried anything but cheese from a local farm or rock samples from the small slides that were constantly occurring along the cliffs.  He turned it upside down to be sure that nothing of a disagreeable organic or abrasive nature remained within, then opened an inner pocket that was, just as he remembered, the perfect size for the box.  In it went as if made to contain it.  He closed the bag, took down his mackintosh and stick, carefully placed a ear-flapped cap on his bald pate and settled it snugly.  Thus accoutered, he squared his thin shoulders and cautiously opened the door.

The wind immediately banged it heavily into the coat rack.  Spits of rain accompanied the wind.  The trailing rags of storm clouds passed swiftly overhead.  Though the worst had evidently blown through, the gusts racing up the cliff face still had potential to rock the solid little masonry house.  But two hundred years of such storms had never done more than displace a few slates on the roof and rattle the bulls-eye panes in the seaward-facing windows.  Dwindle himself faced such storms with similar equanimity.  Still, he pulled the mac firmly up around his face and eyed the brolly now swaying gently by its handle on the coat rack.  After some deliberation, he shook his head.  On such a night, one was as likely to be drenched from below as above, what with the sea spray and the rain driven upward along the cliff face. Not to mention the near certainty that in such a breeze the brolly would be blown inside out within the first hundred yards of his journey.

Resolutely, he stepped across the threshold and firmly closed the door behind him, which closed with a solid click.  Although there was a stout lock, and he had the key in his possession, he neglected to lock it, as was customary in the area.  As strangers were virtually unknown hereabouts, the list of possible suspects in any burglary was not very long, and everyone, potential victims and malefactors alike, knew it.

The path along the cliff was almost luminescent in the half light.  Centuries of use had worn through the turf and scrub to the chalk substrate and the watery moonlight now being glimpsed intermittently between the last of the clouds made it easy enough for him to find his way; though, truth to tell, he could probably have found his way blindfolded if he had to.  Rivulets of rainwater hurried down the path, making a shallow, chalky stream of it.  Welly weather, he thought belatedly, but decided not to go back inside to fetch his.  Although the thick grey woolen socks he habitually wore padded the boots well enough, still, two miles slipshod in them would in all likelihood result in blisters.  He elected to put up with wet feet.

Resolutely, he planted his stick in the short turf alongside the path and struck out toward the village.  The other hand he alternately clamped atop his head to keep the mac secure or calmed the gyrations of the shoulder bag when a gust took it fairly from below.  A slight limp, the result of a schoolboy fall from a horse and aggravated by the arthritis, was only likely to get worse the further he walked and he hastened onward as quickly as he could.

Perhaps a quarter of a mile from his front door the chalky path reached the bottom of a slight declivity where the streams of runoff rain from both directions departed for the cliffside and formed a small but impressive temporary waterfall, as he remembered from ruined picnics on the beach below his house when, holding the oilcloth picnic tablecloth over his head, he had peered anxiously upward wondering when the rain would let up enough for him to climb back to his home.  And at the bottom of the hill, another chalky prominence ran almost to the edge of the main cliff, leaving just a narrow ledge which the path followed, around it and out of sight.  Stepping delicately, brogans squelching slightly, Dwindle started around the curve.  And found he was not alone.  Two men stood on the path.  It did not appear that they were walking, just standing.  Dwindle’s was the only house beyond the point.  The path, in fact, dead-ended at his front door.  Therefore, the two men were either trespassing tourists (despite the large, very legible sign next to the stile marking the beginning of the sheep farmer’s property), or they had come looking for him.  Dwindle paused in the path, considering his next move.  To simply brush past them, as one might do in the city or a town was out here absurd.  Even a word and a nod were insufficient.  They must be acknowledged in some way.  Dwindle felt intense irritation.  Partially at the trespass, although he supposed they could plausibly excuse the lack of advance notice if the phone had been put out by the storm- he hadn’t tried it, so he didn’t know.  And partially because he, a solitary man, didn’t welcome visitors announced or otherwise, particularly at this time of night.  But mainly, he wanted to get the box delivered to its owner- she, the prompter of strange stirrings- and get back to his fireside.  It was entirely possible that the storm hadn’t done with him yet; sometimes they lasted, on and off, for days.

As they blocked the path completely, he decided to walk up briskly to them (briskly being, at his age and in his condition, a relative thing), plant his stick in front of him suggestively, and ask to know their business.  It was his standard strategy for anything he viewed as an intrusion on his privacy and possibly accounted for the lack of friends that had been the theme of his life.  It worked with tradesmen: no reason it wouldn’t work with uninvited callers.  He hoped.  Because, as he thought about it, he wasn’t sure they were callers.  They were loiterers, waiting for someone or something, and that someone could only be himself.  What were they doing and what could they want on such a foul night?  His right hand wavered, instinctively reaching back to his trousers pocket where his wallet resided.  He replaced his hand on the stick.  Firmly.

He cleared his throat.  Neither man moved.

“What is it you want here, gentlemen?  There is nothing further along the path but my home, where you are unexpected and uninvited.  I myself am on my way to the village, which is the nearest source of food and shelter, and is the fastest route to wherever it is that you thought you were going.  I recommend you turn around immediately and go back the way you came.”  He peered closely at the men, but nothing save the tip of one sharp nose could be discerned beneath the shadowing brims of their tweed hats.  “You have the advantage of me, I think.  And as I said, I wasn’t expecting anyone in any case, and don’t care to make your acquaintance if I don’t already know you, and I am not interested in your business except in that your business seems to be taking you where you have no business being.”

The men looked at each other.

“What’s ‘e on about, then?” asked one.

“Haven’t the faintest,” said the other.

“You are trespassing!” said Dwindle, jabbing his stick into the ground to emphasize the point.

“Ah, professor,” said the bulkier of the two men, standing nearest the sheltering cliff.  “but we know you, or of you at any rate.  And once you know our business, I think you will find it to your advantage to listen to what we have to say.  We may save you a long walk on a wet night, in the bargain.”

The ‘professor’ was an obvious sop to his (very) part-time appointment to the county's regional college, but he felt pleased in spite of himself.  And then wary and alarmed again.  How did they know that?  And how much more did they know?

The speaker shifted slightly on the path and the wind carried the odor of wet wool to Dwindle’s thin nostrils.  Wool that had not been cleaned recently.  Or, perhaps, ever.  Maybe wet dog was closer to the mark.  Not really appropriate gear for such a night, making Dwindle wonder how long the two had been loitering here.  The second of the men reached a hand into his jacket pocket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes.  Putting one into his mouth, he bent briefly, cupped his hands around the stick and flicked a cheap plastic butane lighter once, twice, three times, before he got it going in the swirling wind from the sea.  In the brief flare of light, Dwindle saw that he was perhaps 45 years old, or a very hard-lived 35.  The thin nose glimpsed earlier was matched by thinner lips and hollowing cheeks.  Small, ferrety eyes glanced up at Dwindle, and the corners crinkled as he grinned.  “No three on a match tonight, eh?  More like three matches for one fag.”  His voice was a reedy rasp.  Abruptly, the lighter snapped shut and the face vanished into shadow again, save for the tip of the nose, now illuminated by the glowing red end of the cigarette.  Dwindle saw that the man was no more prepared for the weather than his companion was, and his thin jacket offered less protection from the wind.  Still, the man wasn’t acting cold.  The jigging from foot to foot seemed to proceed more from some obscure excitement than because of the weather.

The first man spoke again.  The deep voice indicated that the shadowed bulk was more than just wet overcoat.  An assessment, and immediate dismissal, of his chances against the two flitted through Dwindle’s head so swiftly that he was scarcely even aware of it.  “We believe you have in your possession something that is of interest to us and to our employer.  Something, may I add, that does not belong to you.  It is important to be clear about that.  I wish to eliminate any question of robbery from this conversation at the beginning.”

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”  In fact, of course, Dwindle knew full well what the man meant.  The fact that the man knew probably implied that he knew how Dwindle had come by it.  “And in referring to an employer, I see that you are not acting on your own.  I suggest you go back and report to this person that you have made a mistake and have wasted his time and money.  Whatever it is that you seek, you must seek it elsewhere, as I have only what you see upon me and nothing more.  Now, if you will kindly move out of the way, I will continue to the village.  And I again warn you that you are trespassing and that I shall surely send the local policeman along to see if you have taken my advice.  Good night, gentlemen.”

With that, Dwindle attempted to brush past the men, walking with as firm a tread as he could manage between them.  He felt a tug on his shoulder.

“The bag, professor, the bag.  What are you carrying in the bag?  The article we seek would fit very nicely into such a bag.  May we see what is inside?  As I mentioned, you have no legitimate claim on the object yourself.  Whereas my employer is its rightful owner.  Why not save yourself considerable trouble and let us look?  A curiously made, inlaid wooden, jeweled box.  Either you have it or you don’t.  Either way, we have a look and then we all go on our way peacefully.”

The bag was being gently but irresistibly pulled from his shoulder.  He tried to pull away, but the thin-faced man, quickly snapping the glowing fag-end out over the cliff, stepped in front of him to block the way.

Dwindle glared at the man, who grinned back in turn.  Hands groped inside the messenger bag, quickly locating the hidden pocket and extracting the box.  The man held it up to the watery moonlight.

“My employer instructed us to look for certain signs that the box had been tampered with.  I perceive that the signs are there.  The time for dissembling is past, professor.  We know your reputation for solving puzzles and this puzzle would have been bound to find its way to you.  What have you learned?  You have moved the dials.  Were you able to open it?”

“I have, as you say, no real claim to the box,” said Dwindle.  “However, its owner entrusted it to me to investigate.  As it happens, having failed to solve the puzzle, I was on my way back to the village to return it to her.  If your employer is a comely woman with violet eyes and a rather low, subtle voice, then I may indeed save myself a walk and yield to you the box.  If however, as I suspect, your boss is not that woman, then you have less claim to it than I.  Give it back to me and I will see it restored to its rightful owner, saving you the trouble.”

The thick man laughed, rather phlegmily, and was joined by his companion’s thin cackle.

“No, professor, I’m afraid that wouldn’t do.  We’ll have to take it.  We know of the woman you mention.  She is a thief.  In fact we have come from her tonight.  My employer is a magnanimous man.  If the box comes back to him unharmed, no charges will be preferred.  Nor accessory charges, I might point out, which would be of particular interest to you.  No, professor, you may rest your mind and your gimpy leg this night.  All is restored as it should be and you should soon be restored to your armchair by the fire.  I hereby return this handsome messenger bag to you and hand the box to my companion, who has a plastic bag, much more appropriate to the conditions, in which to carry the box.  With that done, I wish you a good night and a short, pleasant walk back home.”

With that, both men turned about face.  The thin-faced man, with a final grimace and an ironic tip of his filthy cap, tucked the bag into his jacket and they both walked back around the corner of the cliff and out of sight.  Dwindle could only watch them go.

A final spit of rain took him in the back of the neck and he shivered, as much from his late encounter as from the cold.  Pausing a moment, frowning, and finally shrugging his shoulders, he also turned about face and began the walk back up the hill to his house.  There didn’t seem to be any point in making the trek to the village to report the theft tonight.  Given the lateness of the hour, the doubtful weather and, not least, the prospect of trailing the pair back to the village, he decided he would wait for the morning to tell the lady the bad news.  He felt bad about losing the box.  On the other hand, what had she lost besides an interesting antique?  Surely her mind would be set at ease knowing that the box hadn’t contained whatever it was she thought it did.  An empty box wasn’t a great loss.  Still, what had she thought it contained?  Could it have been burgled previously without her knowledge?  Dwindle would have felt relief knowing that however calamitous for the woman the missing contents of the box might be, at least it had not been he who had lost them.  It is a weighty thing to hold someone’s life in one’s hands, after all.

Frowning, muttering, slipping occasionally on the wet path, he made his way home.  Overhead, the last of the tattered clouds fled landward and the moon shone on waters that were still too wild to reflect back its customary path to the horizon.  The air was colder after the storm, and the myriad stars twinkled in the steadfast heavens.  Dwindle plodded doggedly on, his stick sounding the way before him, his mind as doggedly laying out the reasons why the theft couldn’t really be laid to his blame.  If the box had in fact contained something valuable, what in heaven’s name had the woman been thinking to entrust it to a perfect stranger, even if that stranger had an international reputation for solving difficult riddles, as in fairness Dwindle had to allow he enjoyed.  Gradually, as he walked, he began to feel less culpable and more vindicated in his handling of the unfortunate affair on the cliffside path, as we all are wont to do given enough time to put things in their proper perspective.  Still, it would be an awkward conversation with the woman when next they met.

The welcome sound of the ancient iron latch greeted Dwindle at his front door.  He shook his mackintosh at the threshold and stepped inside.  Bending stiffly, he removed the heavy brogans and placed them on the rubber tray just inside the heavy front door.  The mud would be easier to remove once they had dried, though they would need some care to restore them to a useful condition once more.  Dwindle was a man who was careful of his belongings and the shoes were old friends which would answer well to a thorough brush-up and oiling.  He peeled the woolen socks from one foot, critically regarded the pallid appendage thus revealed, and then hopped carefully to where his cherished house slippers stood, neatly paired, near the coat rack.  In went the foot, sliding easily into the black patent leather opera slipper.  Similar treatment for the other foot.  Both would need immediate attention with a towel, but as he detested going barefoot anywhere but in the bath, the slippers would just have to be a bit dampish.

He hung the mac back on its hook, pausing to straighten the prong that had sustained damage when the door had banged into it.  Apart from the slight wetting at the neck, the cardigan seemed dry enough and he kept it on.  Now, what was the appropriate remedy for a uncomfortable encounter on an inclement evening?  Something stronger than his habitual Earl Grey, he thought, though lemon and honey made that an attractive choice.  Besides, it was too late for caffeine, and his nerves needed soothing, not stimulating.  Warm milk was altogether inadequate to such a night as he had endured.  No, brandy was the thing, just the restorative for jangled nerves, offended dignity, unreasoning guilt over an unavoidable loss for which he had clearly not been responsible.  And none of the mundane nightcap brandy, the soporific that put paid to each day’s labors.  No, this required something weightier, something more equal to the extraordinary end to this day.  It had been altogether irregular, regrettable, requiring strong waters to be raised in bidding good riddance to uncomfortable recollections.  The Napoleon, he thought, would do.

He went to fetch it from its place among the dimly glittering bottles on the sideboard.  Standing behind the whiskies and ports that were more readily to hand, its level declined slowly from year to year, as much from evaporation as from imbibing.  Just the thought of the smooth fire at the back of his throat and the ensuing rising glow from his stomach made him smile.

****

Dwindle was very late the next morning.  He sat at the breakfast table, where the red-flecked fertile poached egg stared back into his own bloodshot eyes as they contemplated each other.  He had about decided that it was going to require another fortifying shot of something or other if he was to be able to down the egg when there was a pull on the bellrope at the door.  He swore under his breath.  As he debated whether or no he would answer it, he ran over the possibilities in his mind.  The postman was under strict instructions to simply deliver mail into the ornate brass box with the communicating opening into the foyer without further ceremony.  Besides, it was too early for the postman.  He generally saved the long walk up from the village to Dwindle’s isolated retreat for the last stop on his rounds, the anticipation of a friendly pint foremost in his mind and with no expectation that it would be available in Dwindle’s kitchen.  He and Dwindle understood each other completely.  His long walk downhill would end as it always did, in the Dog and Pony on the high street.

No, it wouldn’t be the postman.  The man didn’t even make it up to his house every day, as Dwindle’s correspondents were not that numerous.  This was a source of friction with Dwindle and the postman, as Dwindle would fly into an unreasoning rage if his infrequent letters to various obscure scientific and other limited-interest periodicals weren’t picked up the same day he put them in the box.  There was a secret agreement between the post office and the local telephone operator in the village not to put through Dwindle’s irate calls, the pretext being unspecified mysterious ‘technical difficulties’, or simply that the line was engaged, would the caller care to try later?  The operator rang the postmaster up separately and that man duly noted that tomorrow’s route would need to include the Dwindle residence.

So, who else?  Salesmen avoided the place by reputation.  When Dwindle had kept a pair of gaunt staghounds, years earlier, the sound of the kennel being unlatched was enough to strike terror into the heart of the most optimistic salesman.  Visions of commission percentages did not survive that dismal clang, and more than one pair of expensive shoes had been spoiled on the fruitless trek to Dwindle’s front door. 

A tradesman was even less likely.  Although the Dwindle freeholding could have reasonably employed the entire stable of skilled laborers in King’s Ley for a period of weeks, only a true domestic emergency ever resulted in a call to any one of them, and they continued, in the evenings in the Dog and Pony, to dream unprofitably of the possibilities.

A fleeting thought, and he sat up straighter.  No, it was unlikelier still. And he was not prepared at this early hour, nor attired, no, not at all, to open the door to the mysterious owner of the box.  Imagine himself blinking on the doorstep, in his flannel pajamas (Royal Stewart plaid, true, a distant and somewhat dubious ancestral connection, but jammies still), and his rather ratty corduroy robe of an uncertain brown with the makeshift rope belt, confronting the elegant stranger with a story that had seemed so plausible last evening and so thin and easily demolished in the light of day.  He had fully planned to walk down to the village sometime during the day to speak to her, but it would be he who would hold the initiative then, rather than being someone followed to earth in his own den.  No, such an interview required at minimum a proper pair of trousers and a smooth chin.  Not that his version of events needed a dignified presenter, but on the other hand the figure he cut this morning was hardly one to inspire confidence in someone whose life he had- however briefly- held in his hands.

Dwindle crossed the foyer, hoping that the morning sun shining in the tall leaded windows siding the heavy front door wouldn’t betray his presence, and went to the window in the sitting room that provided a view of the doorstep.  He pulled the heavy drapes apart an inch and peeped through.  The person under the small portico was hooded, so the face was indistinguishable.  But surely it was she.  Tall, elegant even in the shrouding garment- every line of the slim figure commanding, imperious, as the arm reached out to pull the bellrope again.  Dwindle quailed at the thought of opening the door to her.  The bell jangled loudly from its perch above the door.

Something in the stance of the hooded figure indicated that the rope was going to be used until the jangling produced some effect.  She didn’t look like someone who was going to go away disappointed.  Dwindle chewed his thumb indecisively for a moment, then crept stealthily back to the foyer, taking care not to show himself in the sidelights next to the door.  He moved closer, until his lips were nearly touching the ornate oaken carvings, blackened with age, of the heavy door.  “Who-“  A papery whisper; he cleared his throat.  “Who is it?” he managed, more strongly.

“I think you know who it is, professor.  You had a long enough look from your window.  I need to talk to you.  May I come in?”

At the sound of the low, smoky voice the same strange stirrings arose in Dwindle’s innards.  “I’m afraid that I’m not receiving visitors at this hour, Miss Grimes.  You have me at somewhat of a disadvantage.  Although I am not in the habit of leaving visitors standing on my doorstep, especially female ones, neither am I in the habit of inviting in visitors, most especially female ones,  when attired in nightclothes.  I regret the long walk you have had from the village, but I am afraid I must ask you to return at a more civilized hour.”

There was an amused, light laugh, from the other side of the door.

“What is your notion of a civilized hour, professor?  It is past ten o’clock.  Business is being transacted up and down the village high street at this moment.  Awnings have been rolled down, windows washed, produce arranged on stands.  Fish and flowers have changed hands, bills of sale have been drawn up.  The world is up and doing.  And I am here on business- this is not a social call.”

Dwindle’s wan cheeks colored.  “I am not a grocer, madam.  I have a consulting practice, as you know.  By appointment only, as you were reminded the other day.  I made an exception in your case, given the evident urgency of your request.”  And the violet eyes and smoky voice, he thought but did not say.  “I will not make the exception the rule.”

“But I think you need to speak with me, professor, will want to speak with me, when you hear what I have to say.  I have learned that the box has been opened.”

Dwindle’s mouth fell open.  How did she know this?  How could anyone know this?  He had been careful to shut the box after he had found it empty, so even the men on the cliff path wouldn’t have been able to tell.  And surely they hadn’t gone back to the woman they had called a thief, had they?  He couldn’t understand it at all.

“I was about to come to you this morning, Miss Grimes.  There is indeed news, but it may not be welcome, I’m afraid.”

“News indeed, professor.  I fear there has been a breach of trust.  I really must insist that you speak to me now.  Unless you would rather that I returned with a policeman.”

Dwindle was flummoxed.  Indignation at the unfairness of the accusation mixed with fear at the mention of involvement of the law.  Rather than attempting to say anything further, he simply opened the door and stood staring at the mysterious woman.  She drew the hood back over the ebony waves of hair and gave him a long appraising look, top to toe.  The corners of her mouth turned upward.  Dwindle gestured feebly with his free hand and she swept past him into the foyer.  Dwindle, carefully closing the door against further intrusions, followed her.

“Madam, I assure you there was nothing I could do.  If you know that the box has been opened, then you must also know that I no longer have it.  It was taken from me last night, as I was on my way to the village to see you and to return the box.  Two men loitering on the cliff path confronted me and snatched it.  I gave them quite a fight, and they will have good reason to remember me as they nurse the numerous welts I laid upon them with my stick, but in the end they were too much for me.”  She gave him a long, a very long, look and he stopped himself fidgeting.  “Besides,” he added, “I was given to understand that there was some question as to who the rightful owner is.”

The woman looked perplexed.  “No, I didn’t know that it was no longer in your possession.  And can you doubt what I told you when I entrusted it to you?  In any case, who were you to adjudge ownership?  I placed it in your hands; it was your charge to return it to mine.  And you failed.”

Dwindle colored to his hairline, which had migrated over the years until it nearly reached his neck in the back of his head.

“But we will discuss what is to be done about the loss of the box in a bit.  You said that you had managed to open it?  What did it contain?”

“Ah, that is the rest of the news.  It may be good or bad, I suppose.  You will have to tell me.  There was nothing in the box.  If you were concerned about valuables being lost, you may rest your mind, because they had already been removed before I got it.  Although, now I think of it, it merely changes the time when they were lost, doesn’t it?”

The lady’s ironic half-smile became genuine; happy- or perhaps relieved.  “Nothing in the box, professor?  Are you sure?  How carefully did you examine it?  Surely all your senses are most keenly attuned in your moment of triumph, when you finally crack the secret of the puzzle before you?  Perhaps something of a different sort?”

Dwindle opened and shut his mouth.  Blinked.  “Well, nothing.  I mean, it wasn’t a music box, if that’s what you’re suggesting.  The box is, was, an exquisite bit of workmanship.  The hinges are absolutely noiseless; the tumblers are perceptible only because I had my ear pressed against the dials as I turned them, trying to find the combination.”  He decided not to mention the dentist’s pick.

“Yes, eyes, ears, professor.  A delicate touch also, clearly, as you were able to manipulate the combination to success.  Was there nothing else you noticed?”

“No, I’m telling you.  Ah,” he paused, “yes, there were also smells, just to complete the sensorium, although I fail to see-“

“Tell me about the smells, professor.”

“Well, as I said, the box is a marvel of construction, made of delicate inlays of several kinds of woods, seamless inlays, really remarkable-“

“What kinds of woods?”

“Mmm, I noticed rosewood, sandalwood, each of which has a distinctive odor, and of course cedar, which anyone would have noticed.  And oh, I just remembered.  Outdoor smells, the sea, as if it had recently been opened outside.”

“But that was all?”

Dwindle blushed furiously.  “Yes, there was one other smell.  I-“  Her smile broadened.  He locked eyes with her defiantly, watery blue to deep violet.  “It smelled like you, if you must know.  The jasmine perfume.  And the way your hair smells.  I mean, of course,” he said, suddenly confused, “not that I have in any way attempted to smell your hair.  It reminded me of you somehow, but-“

The lady laughed aloud, a long musical laugh, compounded of joy, amusement, and relief.  “Exactly, professor, exactly.  It smelled like me.  And I am flattered that you found it a pleasant smell, as you imply.  It smelled like me because it was me, in a sense.  When I said you held my life in your hands, I meant it quite literally.  And now it is out of the box, out of your hands, and not unimportantly, out of the hands of my enemies.”

Dwindle frowned.  She hadn’t exactly been laughing at him, but it wasn’t entirely not at his expense, either.  And now she was talking nonsense, mocking him, apparently.  Her life imprisoned in a box.  This was turning into a decidedly unsatisfactory morning.  His breakfast sat untouched, his routine had been upset, and he had lost his footing completely in the conversation.

“You are making fun of me, madam.  I admit that I bear some blame for not returning the box to your keeping, but you have as much as admitted that it contained nothing of any particular worth, so the loss cannot be that heavy.  I will therefore refuse my usual fee and you must let me know if you think the loss of the box amounts to more than that.  And although it is a pretty thing, I hardly think that’s the case.  As for the assertion that some olfactory essence of yourself was freed from the box, that is nonsense, and you know it.  No, you have been mocking me for your own amusement, for what reason I don’t know, as I have done nothing to deserve such treatment.  I won’t be laughed at any longer.  You must leave and I must get on with my morning.  Good riddance to you and your box, if you will pardon my saying so, but I really am rather exercised at all this.”

Dwindle was rather pleased at this little speech.  Although weakened a bit by being delivered in his nightclothes, it had, he felt, recouped a measure of his dignity and had laid a prudent groundwork for forestalling any further claim on him that the lady might bring after she had had time to reflect.

The lady almost managed to look contrite.  “I do apologize, professor.  I assure you I have no intention of making light of any of your efforts on my behalf.  The description you gave of your contest on the cliff path was particularly thrilling,” here came the searching look again, and Dwindle checked the beginning of a fidget, “and I am most grateful for all you’ve done.  You assume correctly: I will require nothing further from you regarding the loss of the box, but not for the reason you suppose.  As I think you do in fact realize, the value of the box can hardly be estimated, as it is unique in the world.  The workmanship is superb; the materials of the dials alone are quite valuable.  Altogether it is a treasure.  Its value may be very favorably compared to a professional fee, even one for such an eminent expert as yourself.  But it was not mine to lose, and so I make no claim.  The two men on the path were correct in implying that I am a thief.  What was mine was what the box contained, and that has now been safely removed.  At this moment I do not care what happens to the box, but I suspect that when it is returned to its real owner, he will not be happy with his two employees.”

“I am glad to hear it.  And I was nearly ready to accept your apology until you brought up the matter of the empty interior.  Really, you have very little regard for my intelligence, despite your claim to respect my abilities.  I am afraid I must see you to the door and then I expect to see you no more.  Although,” he said, remembering that the lost box hadn’t belonged to her, “if you really feel I have been of service, I would accept my standard consulting fee, which is-“

“Please, professor.  Before you eject me, let me explain myself.  It is important that you understand the service you have rendered me, which is infinitely more than the solving of an elaborate puzzle.  And the matter of the fee is still open, because, if my story can convince you, there is a further service you can do me.  Do you know the theory of the Causal Body, professor?”

The professor, who didn’t, nodded wisely but said nothing.

“Good.  Then I am surprised that you have been so adamant in insisting that the box was empty, and I will be able to make my story rather shorter, noting only that the Causal Body has also been referred to by such names as soul-stuff, even vital essence, although the latter is imprecise and fails to capture the spiritual aspect.  To state it baldly but accurately, I was imprisoned in that box.  You released me.  It was not more complicated nor less profound than that.”

“But madam,” said Dwindle who, always easily captured by intellectual debate, found that interest was overcoming irritation, “how can that be?  You brought me the box, you left with the box still in my possession.  If you were in some sense in the box, how was that possible?”

“Perhaps it is better to say that the most important part of myself was in the box, while my physical self was able to continue to function without it.  Believe me, though, I was acutely aware of what had been taken from me, and what it meant to have it in someone else’s hands.  That is why I stole the box.  They stole my soul.  I merely stole it back again.”

“But what can it mean to be bereft in that manner?  You walked about, you conversed, you must have continued all the actions that are necessary to maintaining life.”

“Perhaps it is not so much having a vital part, no, the vital part of oneself held captive.  It is that one’s life is no longer one’s own.  Whoever holds a Causal Body can compel the one bereft to do…” The heretofore frank violet eyes lowered.  “I was compelled to do certain things,” she said, straightening herself.  “I will not further characterize them; the memories are intensely painful.  Suffice it to say that for several weeks I have been a captive in fact while not actually being one physically.  Today I am freed.  And tomorrow I begin- well, we will see what I will begin.”

Dwindle stood irresolute.  “Even granting that what you say is possible, I’m afraid that I don’t see how I can be of aid.  You brought me a box, I opened the box.  I am a consultant, not a man of action.  What you want now is a policeman- or a priest.”

“But you are also a gentleman, and will not abandon a lady in distress.  The final chapter has yet to be written.  Please, hear me out before you say no.  I think once you understand how I came to be in this predicament, you will be as interested as I am in seeing the affair to its just conclusion.”

With that, Dwindle was neatly caught.  The lady had produced another puzzle, perhaps as fascinating as the box had been.  There could be no question now of not, and surely no harm in, hearing what she had to say.  There was always the opportunity to decline once she had spoken.  And what mysteries had been hinted at here, what preposterous claims to be debunked, what fantastical theories to be confronted and thrown down (for Dwindle didn’t for a minute believe all the rubbish about captive souls) and- for all his preferred solitary intellectual lifestyle, Dwindle was after all a man- there was the damsel in distress aspect of it.

The lady waited expectantly.  Dwindle came to himself, his heroic reverie evaporated. 

“Is there somewhere we can sit comfortably, professor?  It is a rather lengthy tale.”

“Yes, yes, of course.  Forgive me.”  He briefly considered sitting at the breakfast table, simply elbowing the remains of his breakfast aside, but decided it wasn’t sufficiently businesslike.  He ushered her into the study, prepared to sit down behind the desk and then remembered his attire.  “Really, I am not myself this morning.  What must you think of me, Miss Grimes.  I assure you I am not accustomed to conducting business in my nightclothes.  Pray make yourself at home.  I will retire to put on something more appropriate to the occasion.”

“Please, not on my account, professor.”  The small smile had returned to her lips.  “Having spent the last quarter of an hour with you in your pajamas, I am quite prepared to consider us intimate friends.  If you are comfortable, as you certainly appear to be, so am I.”

Dwindle, blushing, collapsed in his chair.

“You must know,” she began, “that I am not just an antiquities dealer.  That is how I earn my daily bread.  But my real interest lies elsewhere, in the realm of the unseen.  In my small way, I, too, am a investigator of recondite matters.  And it was how I met Theophrastus Davern and my eventual downfall.  Dr. Davern was conducting a series of lectures on theosophy in London.  These were a particular interest of mine at the time.”  Here Dwindle grunted derisively.  “You know him?”

“Know of him.  Complete charlatan.  Can’t think how you got yourself involved with him.  Why, I would no sooner give him a minute’s worth of my attention than I would a barking dog.  He-“  Dwindle, about to embark on a lengthier denunciation of a person he knew of only from one or two short articles in the dailies, felt the violet eyes upon him and stopped.

“And yet, professor, and yet.  Can a complete charlatan construct an ingenious snare for souls and hold a person’s life hostage therein?  I tell you he did so.  Will you hear the story or not?”

Dwindle squirmed in his chair.  Yes, he thought, a complete charlatan can convince credulous innocents of such powers.  And belief is sometimes enough.  But he merely waved a hand, indicating that she should proceed.

“As I was saying, he was lecturing on theosophy, an interest of mine at the time.  He rented a small hall in the west end and gave talks nightly over the course of a week.  It was a rather dank space, redolent of bygone municipal election recounts and tiresome utility rate debates.  Badly repaired plaster walls, exposed piping, doleful clanking radiators, all covered in many coats of beige paint.  The lights were in dirty hanging milk glass globes, which provided little enough light and left the high ceiling in perpetual shadow.  Now I think of it, I suppose uncertain light is not unwelcome to a magician.  The windows were pebbled glass, high on the walls, but dirty enough that nothing could have been seen through them even if they had been plain glass.  There were chains that fell to eye level to control opening and closing them, but they appear to have been painted shut long since.  In any case, I never saw them open.  On one side of the room, folding tables covered with caterer’s paper were arranged, and there were battered electric urns, one on each table, although as far as I am aware there was never any tea or coffee in them.  Given the filthy condition of the stack of cracked cups, this was probably a good thing.  I imagine the borough council was glad enough to get a few pounds out of the occasional renter, and considered their duty as hosts to be at an end- any amenities were left to whoever rented the hall.

“Anyway, the lecture subscription was not burdensome, and attendance was high.  Seating was by the usual steel folding chairs, profoundly uncomfortable, which made the fortitude of the audience in sticking it out the more impressive.  I came the first night out of curiosity, standing in the back of the hall prepared to slip out unobtrusively if the talk proved unworthy of my time.  For, as you seem to understand, there are people in the field whose only aim is to fleece the unwary and then make their escape.  Don’t smirk, professor, or I won’t continue.  Anyway, I stayed that first night, and the next and the next, sitting toward the back, but arriving earlier and finding myself closer to the dais each night.  On the concluding evening, I sat front row center, on the edge of my chair, rapt, hanging on every word Davern spoke.  I would attempt to convey the wonder that his lectures inspired in me, but I see that to convert a sceptic like you is impossible.  Suffice it to say that I entered an agnostic but lingered a devout convert.

“I may have come to Davern’s notice before that last night, but it was evident then that he had marked me.  I felt that every word he spoke was directed at me and me alone.  Foolish, I know.  Perhaps everyone in the hall felt the same way.  But those eyes, those eyes!  They were magnetic, hypnotic.”

“Yes, they always are, aren’t they?” said Dwindle drily.  Her mouth tightened slightly, but she went on.

“You may have seen pictures, professor,” (he hadn’t).  “But they don’t convey the impact of the man.  The eyes, of course- they bore into you, see through to your deepest being.  It feels like nothing is secret or hidden from him.  But he is otherwise impressive, as well.  He is a man only a little above middle height, but is enormously broad-shouldered and of a thick build.  He wears expensive, well-cut suits that could hide a body inclined to fat, but it is clear from his erect posture, his energy upon the stage, the strength with which he grips the lectern, that his is a body of lean muscularity.  And the hands are huge, almost out of proportion even to so broad a body.  The feet are similarly large, which the patent leather boots do nothing to hide, but rather call attention to.  His face is swarthy, as of a man who spends much time in the sun and the tropics.  Our pallid English sun could not be responsible for that complexion.  He wears a thick, curling beard, matched by the black curly locks that are combed down over a low forehead, whence the intense black eyes peer as from a jungle thicket.  It is a remarkable experience, professor, to have those eyes trained on you throughout an hour-long lecture.”

Shaking her head slightly, the lady returned from the memory as from a distance, to bring her own violet gaze back to the professor.  Her breathing was shallow and rapid, her lovely countenance flushed.  Dwindle, pulling his cardigan more closely about his own thin shoulders, thought sourly that whatever feelings the lady might now have for Dr. Davern, they had once been of a very different character.

“It seems a bit close in here, professor.  Do you suppose I could have a glass of water?”

“Of course, madam.  No, stay in your chair.  I’ll bring it.”

When Dwindle returned with the tumbler, which he had hastily selected as the cleanest in his cupboard and then given a precautionary wipe with the dishcloth, the lady took it gratefully and drew off half of it in a single draught.  She nodded her thanks, wiped her lower lip delicately with a gloved forefinger, then placed the glass on Dwindle’s desk.  He wavered for a moment, then reached out a magazine and put the glass on it, visions of round water stains clear in his mind’s eye.

“Well, it was plain that I had caught Davern’s attention.  At the conclusion of the talk, as the applause ended and people began to file out of the auditorium, there was an exchange of glances between Davern and an odious little man at the edge of the stage who turned out to be his personal assistant.  This man quickly made his way over to me as I collected my things and prepared to go out into the night.  ‘Dr. Davern presents his compliments and wonders if the lady would do him the honor of a private word?’ said the little man, bowing low but using the opportunity to ogle me from ankle to neck in a most offensive manner.  I felt his eyes on me almost as hands, professor, so blatant was his inspection. 

“I drew away from him hastily, which action evidently caught the attention of the great man himself, for he made haste to join us before I could make my escape.  ‘Please forgive my assistant, madam.  He means well, but his manner leaves something to be desired at times.’  The man’s meaning had been clear enough, professor, as any well-bred woman would understand, but I let it pass.  ‘I couldn’t help but notice your faithful attendance at the lectures.  Your interest is humbling and I am deeply grateful.  I hope my little talks met your expectations?’  I assented, perhaps a bit less enthusiastically than I felt, as his assistant still stood near, making a washing motion with his hands over and over.  It was I who felt like washing my hands, I can assure you, although he had never actually touched me.

“Dr. Davern inclined his head slightly, acknowledging my remark.  ‘I am always glad to see a new face at my talks, particularly one as eager and, if you will forgive my saying so, as lovely as yours.  Is theosophy a recent interest of yours, or are you an initiate already and our paths have simply not crossed before?’  I told him that it had been a study of mine and I am afraid that I said more than I should have, for I went on to describe certain spiritualism investigations I had conducted in hopes of contacting the departed souls of my parents, whose loss I continue to feel keenly some years after they perished in a railway accident.  Those black eyes were instantly alight with an avid interest, and I again felt myself impaled by them as might a butterfly be to a collecting board.

“Do you know, professor, how it is possible to be simultaneously fascinated and repelled by a personality?”  Solitary Dwindle, a man more inclined to be to be repelled than fascinated by a personality, merely sat silently.  “I tell you it is so.  The man’s animal magnetism was irresistible, yet at the same time I sensed an undercurrent of danger.  I was in any case powerless to leave, powerless to do anything but continue to stare into those black eyes.  So must a bird feel when confronted with a snake.”

Dwindle stirred himself, reached for the keyboard of his computer and with a couple of  keystrokes awoke it from its slumber.  The monitor lit up, bathing his lean face in its bluish glow.  “One moment, Miss Grimes.  I want to check something.”  He drummed his fingers impatiently while the search term was fed out to the virtual world and then delivered back to him in a page of results.  He scrolled rapidly through, and then grunted as he clicked on one promising hit.  A grim smile etched itself on his face and he nodded.  “As I thought.  Your Dr. Davern has a presence online.  And not a very savory one, I’m afraid.  Are you aware that ‘Theophrastus’ is not his real Christian name?  A crude and obvious attempt to embellish his lecture circuit persona, ‘theophrastus’ meaning something like voice of God, in Greek.  Not a bad asset if you are purporting to be a risen master of theosophy, or whatever the absurd role is that he claims.” 

Then, “Hold on a minute.”

Dwindle clicked on an embedded link.  His eyes widened as he read the new entry, which was evidently from the police blotter.  “His last name isn’t Davern, either.  His real name is Wyvern Waverly.”  Then he leaned closer to the screen, eyes narrowing as he searched the rather poor quality mug shot that accompanied the entry.  “It can’t be,” he muttered to himself.  “Yet how many Wyvern Waverlys can there be in England?”  The face was as the woman had described, perhaps somewhat more haggard and less masterful, as was only to be expected when the bearer was stood up for his portrait under the harsh lights of a police station.  And it just could be, Dwindle thought as he mentally removed the whiskers and subtracted forty years from the face, that the cynical, rather jaded visage could belong to Wyvern ‘Wanker’ Waverly, a bully and rival he remembered only too well from his schoolboy days.

He leaned back in his chair and massaged the bridge of his nose.  “It seems we share an acquaintance, Miss Grimes.  This is very unexpected.  And I must say I am not surprised at the character you give of your Dr. Davern.  It is one that might have been predicted from his earliest years.”

“What do you mean, professor?”

Dwindle turned slightly in his chair to face her.  “I mean, my dear lady, that I know this villain from of old.  He was a schoolmate of mine at Eton.  That is, until he was sent down for cheating.  Cheating was the offense that rose to the attention of the faculty and headmaster, but any of the other boys could have told of a hundred other crimes that they endured at his hands.  He was a bully and a liar, and cordially hated by almost everyone in his form, saving only those few acolytes that he managed to gather around him as a hyena gathers into a pack those that fawn upon it.  They made the schoolyard and the dormitory their special preserve, ruling with arbitrary beatings, theft, and intimidation.  But ‘Wanker’ Waverly was the undisputed leader and instigator.  The rest were nothing without him.

“And he was my only rival in the classroom.  Whatever his shortcomings, he was undoubtedly a brilliant scholar.  It was a huge relief to the rest of us when he was dismissed, but I lost a worthy opponent at the same time.  We kept each other’s intellectual rapiers keen.”

Miss Grimes’s lips were pursed and she seemed to be trying to suppress a smile. “What?” said Dwindle, irritatedly.  “Well, we didn’t call him Wanker to his face, of course.  It would have fatal.  But it was the only way anyone referred to him when he wasn’t present.

“I admit I was rather skeptical, Miss Grimes, when you told of feeling powerless to resist this Dr. Davern, considering it an indication of weakness of character.  I apologize for thinking it, for I cannot without a shudder recall my own dealings with him.  His was and apparently still is a powerful personality.  I am not surprised to learn that he has turned to the worst sort of charlatanism to supply his appetites, nor that he has found another lackey to further his schemes.  It was only to be expected of the man.”

Natasha Grimes looked thoughtful.  “But you admit, professor, the existence of an intellect as powerful as your own at Eton.  Do not be too quick to label him a charlatan.  I know from my own harrowing experience that he is much more than that.”

“I did not say equal, Miss Grimes.  Rival yes, but mine clearly was ascendant.”  Dwindle said, nettled.  “I will allow that he occasionally bested me in certain areas in which I took only a passing interest, but on the whole the school united in granting me first rank.  I feel certain of it,” he said, his voice trailing away slightly.

“Of course, professor, I meant no disrespect.  Did he show any special aptitude at Eton?”

Dwindle mulled that for a minute.  “I remember that he was quite an athlete, something that I was not myself, so I didn’t pay much attention.  But he was generally clever with his hands.  There was a sort of magic club at school.  Given that others shunned him, it consisted almost exclusively of his bully boys.  They put on the occasional show for the rest of the school, and I remember that he was quite extraordinarily good.  Where the others were rather clumsy and obvious, many of his illusions were not easily explicable.  The applause at the end of the performances was genuine, if not particularly heartfelt.  And as I have mentioned, he was an excellent all around scholar, even finding himself at the top of the form in some subjects when disinterest or an uncharacteristic lapse on my part opened the way.  That state of affairs never lasted long, I hasten to add.  Oh, and I particularly remember a couple of occasions when we found ourselves simultaneously before the headmaster.  You must know that Eton was, and I understand still is to an extent, Church of England.  Waverly and I sometimes engaged the instructor in religion in rather spirited debates, both of us siding against the poor man.  On the occasions I mention, the debate grew spirited enough, I may even say heated enough, that the man, in exasperation, sent us to the headmaster.  My, how many years has it been since I thought of that, I wonder?”

He shook himself slightly.  “Does any of that answer to the Dr. Davern you know, Miss Grimes?”

“It does indeed.  Of course the opposition to conventional religiosity is obvious in his interest in theosophy, which is, professor, whatever you may think, as genuine as the steadfast belief of any Church of England rector. “

“I don’t suppose the legerdemain found a place in his lectures, though?  No levitating assistants, or disappearing chalices?”

Miss Grimes looked very solemn.  “Not in his lectures, no, they were quite conventionally conducted.  Rather more decorous than many political gatherings I have attended.  No thrown chairs, for instance.  But he had the audience in the palm of his hand as the best magicians do.  You could have heard a pin drop.  But afterwards, when I was conducted backstage, something that you will call legerdemain and I prefer to call magic, or perhaps a miracle ensued.  If I may continue my story, you will see what I mean.  And when I have finished, laugh if you will- or can.”

She stared at Dwindle, rather fiercely, daring him to scoff.  So intent was the gaze that Dwindle had to look away, merely waving a hand in assent and subsiding into his chair.  Thus assured, Miss Grimes continued.

“I may as well be candid and acknowledge your skepticism up front, Professor Dwindle.  The lure he dangled in front of me was the prospect of a spiritualist demonstration.  As I said, he took me up immediately when I was incautious enough to mention my interest, my rather personal interest, in the subject.  But please, no objections until I have finished.”

Dwindle murmured a polite demurrer, but was otherwise silent.

“I found myself being conducted by means of Davern’s powerful hand on my elbow,” she continued, “to a sort of partition on wheels.  You know what I mean- you see them at conventions and such where they want to define a space and hide whatever distractions lie behind.  This one had a tube frame, painted beige like everything else in the place, with rather startling red velvet drapery hanging on it.  He pushed it to one side impatiently, causing the whole thing to sway precariously.  Behind the curtain was a door, plain, inconspicuous, which might have led to anything from a restroom to a storeroom or even to the outdoors.  In fact, it opened on what was evidently an office of some sort.  We entered, the three of us, and the assistant closed the door behind us.  I began to feel somewhat apprehensive about their intentions, but soon forgot that as I looked at the small table that stood in the middle of the room.  The usual office furnishings had all been pushed against the walls, plain steel desk and chair, a tall steel empty bookcase, and a cloak stand, to make room for the table.  Davern was evidently using the office to prepare for his lectures, as I recognized several of the props he had used during the week sitting on the desk.  But it was the table that drew the eye.  It was a smallish table, square, perhaps the size of the typical folding card table, except that it somehow didn’t seem wobbly the way those tables do.  It may have had something to do with the black velvet cloth that covered it completely to the floor, but it seemed by far the most substantial thing in the room.  I don’t know how to explain it, professor, but I felt that one could balance the weight of the entire world on this table without affecting it in the slightest.  It was bedrock, immovable.

“Arranged on the table were two black candles in two glass vases.  They were rather squat candles, not tall as you would see on a dining table, for example.  And they weren’t in holders- I’m sure the crystal containers were vases.  Between the two candles were a cast bronze bowl, rather thickish, with curiously decorated bas-relief twining figures on it, and a sort of small mallet made of wood.  I believe they were naked human figures, although I did not get a chance to examine the bowl closely.  Davern let go of my elbow and I stood passively in front of the table, perhaps four feet from it.  I could just see the assistant out of the corner of my eye, near the door.  Davern went over to a hard-sided satchel standing near the wall, opened it with a key, and withdrew an ordinary plastic container of bottled water.  I thought perhaps he was thirsty after speaking nonstop for the last hour.  I was somewhat thirsty myself and hoped to be offered a bottle.  But he didn’t drink it.  He brought it back to the table, opened the bottle and tossed the cap in the corner, and poured the contents of the bottle into the bronze bowl.  Then, taking something like a scent bottle from his inner suit jacket pocket, he poured a single drop from it into the bowl.  Immediately there was a faint but unmistakable odor of pines and sea salt in the air, enormously refreshing in the stale atmosphere of the municipal hall.  I may have gasped slightly.

“He replaced the bottle in his pocket.  Then, leaning on the table with both fists, he regarded me steadily.  He might have been leaning on an outcropping of a mountain for all the motion he imparted to the table.  ‘So, Miss Grimes,’ he said.  ‘I have never shared this particular ritual with anyone else, but I sense in you someone who can appreciate the true significance of what she is about to see.  You described to me the anguish you felt in losing your parents, and the disappointment in the failure of your efforts to contact them in the afterworld.  I am here to show you that it was only a matter of technique that kept you from success.  That world is real, its denizens are real and are as eager to communicate with you as you are with them.  Miss Grimes, I am able to put you in touch with your late parents, tonight, in this room.  Would you like me to do that?’

“You can imagine my eagerness, professor, or perhaps you can’t, given your skepticism.  But I was ready to believe.  The spell of the evening was still upon me, and I suppose I was a ready subject, having already attempted the feat on my own and failed.  I remember putting my hand to my throat, unable to speak, and merely nodding.

“Davern nodded in return.  He pushed himself back, put a hand into a jacket pocket.  Apparently not finding what needed, he glanced at his assistant.  The man quickly reached into his own pocket and produced a matchbook, which he hurriedly crossed the room with and handed to Davern.  Davern struck a match and, carefully holding the match tilted downward to sustain the flame, lit the wick of one of the black candles on the table.  It took a moment to catch, whereupon he withdrew his hand from the vase.  The match had burned down too far to light the second candle, so he shook it out and let it drop to the floor.  Then he struck a second match and lit the other candle.  They burned steadily in their vases, the flames not wavering in the slightest in the still air.Satisfied, Davern then took the wooden mallet in his large hand and, never taking his eyes off my face, struck a rather gentle blow on the side of the bronze bowl.  The effect was startling.  Though not actually loud, the bowl rang with a deep sonority, becoming the only sound, the only possible sound in the room.  At the same time, the surface of the water in the bowl began to move in sympathy with the vibrations of the bowl.  Well, not move exactly- it wasn’t like dropping a pebble in a puddle.  The concentric ripples seemed to stand almost still, with only a tremulous wavering apparent.  It was mesmerizing.  I watched, fascinated, letting the ringing of the bowl fill my consciousness.

“’And now, Miss Grimes,” he said, ‘ the scene is set, the veil between worlds is thinning, and the inhabitants of the other world are crowding the growing split to experience once more some shadow of their former lives, even as we glimpse the shadows they now are to our senses.  If you are ready, please attempt to speak to your parents.  They are here now: surely you sense them.  What would you like to ask?’

“I was overwhelmed.  There were so many things I wanted to ask, but my heart was too full, too full.  I stammered out some question, asking how they were, were they happy, did they miss me as I missed them.  I don’t know, it came out all in a rush; I don’t suppose it was very coherent.  Davern nodded sympathetically.‘They won’t be able to speak, Miss Grimes.  The apparatus I have set up is rudimentary.  I would be able to do better in my own environment, much better.  But watch the candles.  They are living things, inhabited by the spirits of your departed loved ones.  Watch the dance of the flames, Miss Grimes.

“And they did move, professor, they did.  In the stagnant air of that hall, encased in the crystal vases, they did move, serenely, slowly.  Even lovingly, although you will laugh at that.  I could feel the love pouring from my parents, expressed in the wavering flames.  I was enthralled.  Tears welled from my eyes.  My arms ached to embrace them, to hold something substantial, but there were only the bright flames.  Nevertheless, I have never felt as loved as I did at that moment, a warm parental love that reassured me everything was unfolding exactly as it should.

“But even as I was basking in the warmth of my parents’ regard, the flames grew agitated.  Davern staggered slightly, and put a hand to his forehead.  ‘The veil is descending once more, Miss Grimes.  I cannot hold it back.  The energy required is too great.  Bid your parents farewell now!’

“And with that, the flames went out.  I cried out, and reached toward the table.  The assistant anticipated me, and grabbed my arm.  And with that, the spell was truly broken.  I found myself sobbing.”

Miss Grimes shuddered as she recalled the incident.  “Oh, I don’t know.  You tell me he was a fine magician.  As I reflected on the incident later, I suppose that he could have been using his hands to subtly direct the air around the candles to make the flames respond.  Maybe it was the glamour of the evening’s talk, the force of Davern’s personality.  Maybe, maybe.  But I tell you that the emotion was as real as anything I’ve ever felt.”

The professor, in spite of himself, had listened fascinated to the woman’s narrative.  He stirred in his seat, found he needed to stretch cramped limbs.  Dwindle, who himself badly wanted a cup, inquired “Tea?” politely.  “You tell a remarkable and remarkably long tale.  Wouldn’t take a minute, you know, and then you could go on, refreshed.”

Miss Grimes didn’t even seem to hear.  She twisted a handkerchief abstractedly in her lap.  “I don’t know how long I stood there, trembling, before I noticed, by the squirming pressure of his fingers, that the assistant still held my arm.  I shook free, revolted.  He moved to the wall and flicked on the buzzing fluorescent lights.

“Davern remained in front of the table, leaning heavily upon it for support.  Apparently the effort of contacting the spirits had been strenuous.  Raising his head, he smiled wanly at me. ‘Well, Miss Grimes?  Were we successful?  Have we indeed made contact with your loved ones upon the other side?’  Not trusting myself to speak, I nodded dumbly.  ‘And I trust it was a comfort to you to be able to do so.  I of course was unacquainted with the couple, but such was the warmth of their presence even I was reassured that all was well with them.  Still, there must have been so much you would have liked to ask them, and perhaps they of you.  The flames are excellent for conveying emotion, but little else.  Specific communication requires a different technique.’

“Mastering my voice at last, I told him that it had been a wonderful, if rather overwhelming experience, and thanked him profusely.  He modestly waved away the compliment.  ‘And yet, Miss Grimes, so much more is possible.  Aren’t you curious as to the mode of their new existence?  Wouldn’t you find it comforting in your own life to know that when the final dissolution comes, as it must to all of us, there lies beyond a delightful country and a gladsome eternity in which to renew the loves you knew in this life?’

“Of course, I admitted it that it would be a wonderful thing.  What else could one say, especially after such an experience as I had just had?  And with those deep black eyes upon me, there were likely many less obvious things I would have admitted.  But he just smiled, and produced an engraved card.  When I didn’t immediately reach for it, I don’t know why, he proffered it again, more insistently.  It was an ordinary enough card, engraved, heavy stock- I may still have it in my purse” She rummaged for a moment in the handbag, the pulled out the card.  Dwindle took it from her.  He turned it over once or twice in his hands, examined it more closely under the desk lamp, then shook his head and returned it to her.

“Little to be learned.  As you say, solid and rather ordinary.  Even circumspect, which I would not have expected from the man, given what you related so far of his performance.  Nothing but his name and address.  No string of initials after the title: no clue as to what he is actually a doctor of.  Nowadays, could be anything.  But perhaps he is rightly careful to omit any claims that might later be used in a fraud action.  Posh address, obviously.”

Miss Grimes accepted the card and put it back in her purse.  “That was really the end of the interview.  I know I was still in a state of rather elevated emotion and perhaps a bit confused, but I don’t recall that much else was said by either of us.  He seemed to believe that the invitation had been made and accepted in the simple presentation of the calling card.  And I did nothing to demur.  ‘Tomorrow evening at seven, then?’ he said gravely, and I merely nodded.

“The next thing I remember clearly, I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the municipal hall, with no real memory of how I had got there.  I inhaled great lungfuls of the chill night air which by degrees revived me and released me from the spell I now felt I had been under.  As my head slowly cleared, I looked around me and realized I had no idea of what time it was.  The street was certainly empty of any of the attendees of the meeting.  People being what they are normally congregate in small groups outside a theater following a performance, to compare notes and settle plans for the rest of the evening for a cup or a pint.  But there was no one, so obviously some time had passed.  I carried no watch, and so had no idea of how much time until I reached the underground station to find that nearly two hours had gone by since the lecture had concluded.

“Oddly, after such an unsettling experience, I had no difficulty at all in falling asleep once I reached my flat.  In fact, hardly had my head hit the pillow before I was deep in the most refreshing slumber I have experienced in ages.  I awoke the next morning greatly refreshed and with a profound sense of well-being, which I attributed to the positive effect of communing with my parents’ spirits.  As the day wore on, though, more of the details surrounding the experience reemerged and I grew troubled by my inability to account for the gaps in the evening.  When out of Davern’s presence, the small discrepancies and ambivalences that one felt at the time return, and one begins to question the feeling of well-being that so clearly proceeded from him.  I spent the day in growing indecision- should I go that evening or not?  In the end, while I genuinely wanted to re-experience that spiritual warmth, it was really only the conventional fear of appearing gauche that determined me to go.  His card had not even a telephone number that I might use to convey my regrets.  Having made up my mind, I had a last cup of tea, and dressed hurriedly.  Something sober, I thought, befitting the solemnity of the occasion.  I am not by habit a flashy person, professor, and I certainly did not want to encourage any lascivious thoughts on the assistant’s part.”

Dwindle made a conscious effort not to glance down at Miss Grimes’s crossed knees, where he knew her flesh would have strained the opaque stockings in two paler patches.  Some persons, he thought, did not have to dress in a flashy manner to call attention to themselves.  Some persons would draw every eye in the room if they were wearing funeral weeds.

“I alighted from the cab at the Belgravia address Dr. Davern had provided.” 

Dwindle humphed.  “So the act is pure fakery, but the money is real enough, apparently.”  Miss Grimes looked at him sternly.

“The building’s façade stood out in no way in that neighborhood, though of course anywhere else in London it would have been imposing enough, I suppose.  White stone, wrought iron railings around the area, black enameled door.  I mounted the steps more confidently than I felt, for the whole adventure began to seem a bit dubious.  Idiotically, I looked around to see if I was recognized, as if anyone I knew would be likely to be found in that neighborhood at that hour.  But there wasn’t a soul to be seen, which added weight to my misgivings.  Nevertheless, I had made up my mind to keep the appointment and so I reached for the ornate brass knocker on the door and swung it once, twice.  There was no response for as much as a minute, and I was reaching again for the knocker when the door swung silently inward, opening on a vague obscurity with no one to be seen.  As I hesitated on the threshold, the odious assistant peeped out from behind the door..  ‘You are expected, Miss Grimes,’ he said in that nasal monotone I remembered from the night before.  I found myself instinctively clutching my purse more closely.  Bowing slightly, he beckoned me forward, affecting an obsequiousness that the smirk upon his thin lips gave the lie to.  I may have hesitated a moment, but I was determined not to let him see that I was afraid of him.  I brushed past quickly, into the foyer.

“He held out his hand for my coat, but I shook my head, refusing.  Nodding as if he had expected it, he turned and led the way deeper into the house.  It was a most curious house, professor.  Once beyond the parquetry of the foyer, the floor was covered wall to wall in the deepest pile carpet imaginable, which may have been a chocolate brown.  Or the color of dried blood.  It was difficult to tell in the glooming obscurity.  There was light from wall sconces, but it was all indirect and dim.  No footfalls could be heard on the carpet.  The walls, where they weren’t covered by hangings of ambiguous pattern, or perhaps representations of something I was unable to recognize, appeared to be moiré patterned wallpaper, but very faint, perhaps the color of old gold.  There were no mirrors, and whatever windows there were were covered in heavy drapes, so there were no surfaces in which one might catch one’s reflection.  One might have expected that an old house, with such heavy furnishings, would have smelt as least faintly of age and dust, but there was no smell at all- it was absolutely neutral.  I felt, as I followed the crabbed figure in front of me through the gloom, strangely disembodied.  I was unaware of the feel of the floor I walked on, the carpet was that thick.  I cleared my throat nervously, but no sound followed.  It was a place where one felt unsure of one’s own existence.  It was profoundly unnerving, and I was on the point of turning and bolting when the assistant came to a door at the end of the hallway, put his hand upon the knob and knocked.  Immediately that was answered faintly from within, and I almost sobbed with relief at hearing another human voice.

“The door opened upon, blessedly, a rather ordinary study, brightly lit from four cut-glass chandeliers.  Davern rose from a chair before a bright fire to greet me, dressed in a black robe or kimono, having upon it no figure or insignia of any kind.  ‘Delighted you could come, Miss Grimes,’ he said, and took my hand.  For a moment, I thought he was going to kiss it but, after lingering over it briefly, he tucked it under his arm.  My hand, nearly lost in that huge paw, could not be extricated without a struggle, and that seemed rude.  I allowed myself be led.

“It is said that much can be deduced about the character of a man by an inspection of his library.  Perhaps that is true in Davern’s case.  The variety of titles pointed to what must be a bewilderingly multifaceted mind.  If he had read only a fraction of the volumes he was indeed well- and broadly-read.  There appeared to be little interest on his part in display, although the bookcases themselves were handsome specimens of oak and beveled glass.  And while behind the glass there were certainly many books with ribbed leather spines, gilt lettering and edges, there were also not a few cheap paperbacks among them.  Lurid paperbacks, I might add; some were placed face-on in the bookcase to show the covers.  I noted science fiction monsters, cowboys silhouetted against sunsets, even a few bodices being ripped.  And there was no obvious order to the titles that I could see, as these paperbacks stood among works of religion, philosophy, economics.  Especially religion, if I may include under that heading alchemical works, from Paracelsus and Samuel Dee to Carl Jung.  I have no idea how the man finds anything.  Oh, and some practical works.  I noted several on the subject of woodworking.  All this in the few shelves I was able to examine closely enough to read titles as I passed.  There must be thousands of volumes in that large room.”

Dwindle, glancing around the room, compared his own rather scantier library to what Miss Grimes had described and reflected that the true measure of a collection was an emphasis on quality over quantity.  That sort of eclecticism was a sign of a disorderly mind.

“There was a reading table in the room made of some darkly lustrous wood, with four matching chairs around it.  It had been pushed to one side to make room for a cloth-covered table in the center of the room, perhaps the same table that I had seen in the municipal hall, although it seemed somewhat larger.  It did give off the same feeling of solidity and permanence.  If it had been tilted in relation to the room, I would have believed that the room itself was off-kilter, not the table.  There was the same sort of black velvet covering to it, concealing the legs.  If it had any- it may have been a solid block for all I know.  And in the center of the table, professor, was the selfsame box that I brought to you a few- how many has it been?  It seems so long- days ago.

“The box was open, revealing the empty interior.  The room’s bright lights made it possible to inspect the intricate joinery.  The dial reflected the chandelier lights in a hundred glints.  I was evidently meant to observe it closely, as Davern stopped in front of the table and released my hand.  ‘A pretty thing, isn’t it, Miss Grimes?’  He said it fondly, even proudly, as a collector might.  I remarked that I thought it was beautifully made, although I had no real expertise to judge the workmanship.  ‘It is made of twenty-one different kinds of woods, from all parts of the globe.  The dials you see on the front are inset with real jewels.  The dial functions as a locking mechanism, protecting the contents.  It is the product of an immense amount of painstaking labor, and was purchased for a sum which I would blush to mention.  But when I saw it, I knew I must have it.  It is a box for secrets, Miss Grimes.’

“I was at a loss as to how to respond to this, professor.  I had come to participate in a séance, not to admire a rich man’s trophy possessions.  I said the only thing I could think of at the moment. ‘But it is empty, Dr. Davern.’  ‘Ah,’ he said coyly. ‘Perhaps that is the secret.’  I said something or other complimentary, and then inquired as to the agenda for the evening, ‘For, doctor, I thought we were here tonight to make an attempt to contact my parents in a more comprehensive way than we were able to last night.’  ‘In good time, Miss Grimes, in good time.  Have patience.  There is a valid connection between this box and the project we have before us this evening.  This box, too, is a technology for communicating with souls.  Here, let Drax (for that was the assistant’s name) take your coat and bag and please be seated while I explain.’  I let him take the coat, but kept my purse, as you can imagine.  Davern drew up one of the library table chairs to the cloth-covered table and held it for me as I sat down.  He didn’t fetch a chair for himself, but stood behind me the while.  From somewhere, I don’t know where since he was wearing a gown that didn’t have pockets that I had been able to observe, he produced a stoppered glass vial, I believe the same one he used in the ritual the preceding night.  I say this because as he uncorked it, the same brief odor of pines, sea salt and earth drifted through the air and again I found myself slightly gasping.  This time, he poured a single drop into the wooden box.”

Dwindle, who remembered the mélange well, said nothing.

“’It is indeed empty now, Miss Grimes, but soon it will not be.  When we witnessed the dance of the candles last night, I told you the veil between the worlds had been thinned sufficiently for the spirits beyond to affect the flames.  But such rudimentary contact was all that was possible at that time, and that only due to my intense effort and concentration could even that much occur.  You saw that I could not maintain it for long.  The box in front of you is a much more robust technology, not one so dependent on an agent to control.  With it, we can dash the veil aside entirely.  We will in fact be able to summon the spirits of your parents into the box where you will not only be able to feel their presence, but to communicate with them.  Questions can be asked and answered, and you will know the voices for your parents’.  It is very likely that there will be an ectoplasmic manifestation of some sort- their dear faces will be present to your eyes.  In short, you will do everything but hold them in your arms once more, though even a phantom touch might be felt if we are fortunate.  What do you say, Miss Grimes?  Will you dare to experience the joy of a reunion in everything but the flesh?  Or will you turn away from an experience that only a chosen few have ever been privileged to know.’

“I did not trust myself to speak, professor.  I turned my head to look at Davern and only nodded, tears welling in my eyes.  ‘Excellent.  I recognized you for a bold soul from the moment I set eyes on you.  Then please, return your attention to the box.  Closer, please.  Yes, that’s right.  Look into the box.  This will need your utmost concentration.  The emptiness is only apparent, Miss Grimes.  Look into the box deeply and you will find that it is alive with spiritual energy.’  I looked deeply, professor, and I am not ashamed to say that I did feel the energy that Dr. Davern mentioned.” 

Dwindle, on the edge of his seat, fascinated, and having nothing of a skeptical character to contribute, simply nodded.

“’It all depends on you, Miss Grimes,’ he continued.  ‘I have no part in this.  Concentrate, focus all of your attention on the box and keep your parents’ images in the forefront of your mind.  Call to them, Miss Grimes.’  And so I did.  And dimly, in the corners of the box, there were tiny luminous mists arising, twisting, sliding over the edge and beginning to twine around the jeweled dials.  But abruptly, the luminescence died.  At the same time, the room began to grow dark.  The glad anticipation I had felt was replaced by an anxious heaviness.  I tried to pull back, but Davern placed his heavy hand on my shoulder, compelling me to remain bent over the box.  Unable to tear my gaze away from the writhing vapors in the box’s interior, I tried vainly to arise.  My heart thudded painfully, slowly.  My jaw was rigid with fear.  And as I watched unblinking, I seemed to be drawn closer, closer to the box.  I may have tried to scream, I don’t know.  And then the light vanished completely, and the light of my mind with it.

“I have no idea whether I was truly unconscious or if so for how long, but when I became aware of my surroundings again, the room was lit as before.  Davern no longer had his hand on my shoulder.  He was standing at the side of the table, regarding me closely.  I shook my head to clear it.  All seemed as before, but as I looked at the table, I saw that the box had been closed.  And as I considered, I saw that things weren’t quite as they had been.  There was definitely a thinner, paler quality to the light in the study, as if the lights had been changed for a lower wattage.  No, that’s not right- things looked somehow less substantial than they had been.  ‘Are you all right, Miss Grimes?’ he said, concern in his voice but not his eyes.  There was triumph in his eyes. I didn’t understand.  ‘I believe so, doctor.’ I said.  ‘I must have blacked out for a moment.’  ‘Mmm, yes, we were worried.  The experience can be intense.  And were you able to speak to your parents?’  I told him I wasn’t sure, wasn’t sure exactly what had happened.  I asked him what had he seen, had he witnessed the mists rising as I had.  ‘No, I saw nothing.  You appeared to concentrating deeply, then your head dipped toward the table, and I was forced to catch you to prevent your collapsing.  You tried to say something, but your voice was strangled, guttural, and I was unable to make it out.  I was relieved to see you straighten and look about you again.  I hope that the encounter was all that you hoped it would be.’  Again the hard gaze.

“I suppose that the disappointment was plain on my face as I shook my head.  I know that my lower lip trembled.  ‘Ah, well,’ he smiled. ‘Perhaps as you take time to reflect you will realize that it was indeed a life-changing experience, though not quite as you had anticipated.  I can tell you that the box is no longer empty and there was indeed an intimate connection made.  In fact, I can assure that you will find that your life is not as it was when you arrived tonight and has changed in ways you cannot now understand.  But you will, Miss Grimes, you will.  What you need now is rest and time to consider.  Yes, that is what is wanted.  Rest and reflection.  I think you may go now.’

“You can imagine my feelings at this strange statement and the abrupt dismissal.  As if I needed his permission to leave!  But I was still too confused to make a proper reply.  Meekly enough, I rose from the chair.  The assistant produced my coat.  I remembered to take my bag from the floor beside the chair.  And in a daze, I was led out of the study and back through the dimness of the hall.  Only this time, curiously, I didn’t feel frightened or disembodied.  I was simply weary and sad, and rather drawn - yes, I believe that’s the right word- as I had felt after the séance.  In fact, although the lighting had not changed, the walls were more distinguishable, the gloom not so pervasive.  The carpet was just a carpet, the drapes just drapes.  Drax, smirking silently, opened the street door and stood aside to let me pass, and I found myself once more gulping in the sharp night air after a very unsettling evening.”

Natasha Grimes sat back in her chair and crossed her hands in her lap.  “Well, professor, what do you think?”

Dwindle blinked, once, twice.  “I hardly know what to think, Miss Grimes.  There are aspects to what you relate that are indeed unsettling.  Davern, or Waverly, has engaged in rather questionable conduct as regards an unaccompanied young woman.  But you did go there of your own accord, and by your own account emerged on his doorstep apparently none the worse for wear.  It was certainly rude to dismiss you that way, and I think an offer to see you safely home would have been in order.  I take it, though, that that is not the end of the story.  What happened then?  Did you take his advice to rest and reflect?  What did you conclude?”  Tea was forgotten for the moment.

Miss Grimes leaned forward, irresolutely pushing the ashtray in a small circle with a gloved forefinger.  She hesitated, then looked into Dwindle’s eyes once more.

“Yes, rest and reflection,” she continued in a low voice.  “How much rest and reflection would you do, professor, if the result was broken sleep and nightmares?  That night, unlike the previous night’s sense of well-being and hope, was marked by restlessness, sudden starts, and a confused foreboding.  I had expected the weariness and melancholy to dissipate once I had left Davern’s house, but they did not.  The feeling that the world had somehow become less vibrant, more attenuated- yes, that’s the word I want- continued.  I thought that, too, would pass, but it did not.  Imagine if you can a ride in an underground carriage where the rattling and roaring is hushed, the harsh lighting dimmed, the shock of air  as the train races into tunnels hardly felt, and even the ancient smells of creosote and coal smoke are dulled.  I hardly know how I made it home.  I know I sat numbly in a chair in the parlor for some indeterminate time, not thinking about anything at all.  Eventually I got ready for bed, said my prayers, and lay down.  Immediately, as it seems now, the dreams began.  I can remember almost no details at all.  What I recall is a feeling of dread and a pull to return to the scene of the late evening’s appointment.  This happened again and again- it was relentless, and I resisted feebly.  I was startled to a drugged, semi-wakeful state every few minutes in this tug of war.  After an interminable time, daylight began to show through the curtains of my room and I wearily arose to the new day.”

Miss Grimes twisted in her chair as if the recollection pained her.  Dwindle half arose to go to her assistance, but she waved him away.  Straightening, she said, “And now I come to the most painful part of my story.  You will scarcely credit it, but I went back to Davern’s.  Yes, I did.  I passed the morning in a state of numbness.  Cups of coffee and tea accomplished nothing.  The fugitive promptings to return to Davern’s in fact grew more frequent and strong until I was nearly frantic.  It was completely irrational.  Nothing good had come of the appointment the night before; why in God’s name would I want to go back?  To endure further humiliation?  It was unthinkable.  Then, it must have been around midday or perhaps a bit after, I’m not sure, I apparently collapsed, insensible.  The strain of resisting the maddening impulse had become too great.  What followed seemed no more real than the dreams I had had- fleeting fragments of streets, pedestrians, a cabman peering concernedly into my face.  And then to my horror, in a moment of clarity I was again in front of Davern’s black front door and reaching for the knocker.  After that my memory is truly blank until, sometime after dark, I was again sitting in my parlor having no notion of what had passed during the afternoon.  Crazily, I believed for a moment that the whole thing had indeed been a dream, and I had never left my flat.  But as I looked dazedly down at myself, I noted in anguish that I had somehow dressed to go out, and my hat and coat were flung carelessly upon the floor behind me.”

Miss Grimes smiled wanly.  “I suppose if there is anything positive about the episode, I had at least not been wandering the streets in my nightclothes.  Maybe if I had been, though, someone would have had pity on me and called for a constable to take me home.

“My God,” murmured Dwindle.  “That is horrible!”

“Ah, but it was only beginning.  I spent that evening in a pitiable condition, shaky and sometimes weeping.  But the state of exhaustion was so great that when I did go to bed, I instantly fell into a profound sleep, a sleep of no dreams at all.  And I awoke the next morning refreshed, if still rather shaken and in some doubt of my sanity.  Cautiously, I took stock of my mental functioning and was relieved to find that the idée fixe of yesterday was gone.  But alas, not for good.  After an interval of several days which I passed normally, able to return to my work and nearly able to convince myself that the strange interlude had never happened, it did happen again.  One night as I sat writing, I found my mind returning to the séance at Davern’s house.  At first, I thought I was simply reviewing the events so that I might resign them forever to that category of experience that one learns in order never to repeat.  But the memory grew more vivid.  I saw again the box, smelled the sea and, God help me, the memory was seductive!  At that instant, I became aware of the urgings to go back to Davern’s.  Too late, I attempted to wrest my mind from these thoughts into other channels: to no avail.  The subtle signals grew stronger.  I was in despair.  I walked the room distractedly.  And then the fog descended again.  And when I again became aware, I was once more sitting in my chair in the parlor, still dressed to go out, and I saw by the clock that it was after midnight.  I put my face in my hands and wept in fear.  I couldn’t understand what was happening to me; I feared I was losing my mind.  And in a way, that was true.  Another mind was controlling my actions.

“The summons didn’t come every day.  Although my recall of that period of time is confused, there were definitely stretches of days that were completely normal, during which I continued my life as I did before I met Davern.  But there were also days and nights, mostly nights, that I couldn’t remember at all and gradually I lost the ability to function even on the lucid days, knowing that the call would come again.  I spent the time dreading the future, mostly curled up in a rocker in my darkened parlor.  I didn’t go out for fear that I would black out and not be able to get back home.  The funny thing was, though, that when I had one of my blackouts, there was no surer sign of it than that I would eventually find myself sitting once more in my parlor, no memory of where the lost hours had gone.

 “I would never say it became routine, but gradually, as my shattered confidence began to return, I knew that I had to break the cycle somehow.  Was this truly mental illness brought on by painful disappointment at the séance?  Was I hallucinating these nightmarish journeys or was I indeed traversing the city in a dream state, somehow in thrall to Davern’s will ?  I resolved to find out.  And so on several occasions, by dint of mnemonic devices like pinching myself continuously, or tying string to my finger and staring at it- I’m sure I don’t know what passersby thought- I was able to confirm that I indeed had been to Davern’s: I can recall arriving at and knocking on the door.  But I could go that far only- my mind from that point on is blank until I again find myself back outside- once I came to myself actually on the doorstep, but more often it was when homeward bound on the train I became aware of my surroundings.  And sometimes the amnesia persisted until I woke up the next morning in my own bed, depressed and fearful.  I don’t know what it is that I did or was done to me, but I suspected the worst.”

Miss Grimes rolled up her sleeve to show old bruises.  A flush crept up from her lovely neck to encrimson her cheeks.  “And there are other marks.  Other places.”  The violet eyes slid away from Dwindle’s, and the gloved hand pulled at the sleeve fretfully. “And that was not the worst.  There is reason to believe that I did not spend all of the lost hours at Davern’s.  There were afternoon episodes where I apparently went back out into the city.  And I fear that there has been mischief done during that time.  I have had some very disturbing phone calls from clients and colleagues in the antiquities business wondering about actions I have taken in regards to several rather valuable objets d’art.  Leaving aside the unthinkable personal violation in all this, I greatly feared for my professional reputation, so I investigated.  And to my horror, I appear to have made some very questionable transactions against clients and in favor of a party which can only have been Davern or his associate. 

“I was completely distraught.  Clearly, this could not continue.  I racked my brain, trying to understand how it was that I was no longer mistress of my own life.  Holding myself firmly to the task despite every instinct urging me to shy away from it, I went over the night of the séance in every detail.  I came to the conclusion that Davern had somehow trapped some essence of myself in that damnable box and was using it to control my actions when it suited his purposes- or appetites.  At that point, I knew that I must get hold of the box.”

She looked at him defiantly, her fine, proud head held high, eyes flashing. “I know what you think of all this, and are no doubt still thinking at this moment, professor.  It is impossible, ridiculous, just the sick fantasy of a weak female.  But the bruises, professor, the outraged clients- these are real enough.  And whether he actually captured an essential part of myself or merely hypnotized me in some way, is irrelevant.  I say merely, but there is nothing mere about it from my viewpoint.  It is immaterial whether he had imprisoned my soul in a diabolical box or only caused me to believe that he had, the effect was the same.  And the remedy was the same in either case: the box must be stolen and opened.  Only then could I be free.

“But how to do it?  As I have already related, only by dint of extraordinary effort had I been able to affirm that I did in fact make these journeys, when called like some trained animal by its master’s psychic whistle, but awareness was lost the minute the black door opened.  I had to find a way to maintain conscious attention when I was inside his house, learn where the box was kept and purloin it away.  And time was of the essence: it was clear that I was beginning to fail physically.  A great lethargy had descended on me.  I ate little, I slept less.  My senses were altered, as well.  Daily the world was becoming a paler, more hushed version of itself.  Sunlight was wan, colors were washed out.  I was no longer as aware of the busy street life outside my window; the sounds of autos and cabs, the teeming thoroughfares became nearly silent.  No click of heel or tap of umbrella reached my ears, though in the past I had found the city noise most distracting.  I was gradually sinking into a lassitude broken only by the occasional imperious summons.

“As I pondered, it came to me that what my attention focusing tricks had in common was pain.  Pinching myself, obviously, but what had kept me aware of the string was how tightly it bound my finger, enough so that the digit was purple from lack of circulation when the knot was finally untied.  I saw that the same sort of discipline that kept the saints focused on the divine might save me from the prison my soul was in.  You will think me impossibly egotistical or actually blasphemous.  I don’t know or care what your religious leanings are.  But I came to believe that the same sort of mortification the emulators of Christ’s suffering endured could be my own salvation.  Or you may think me simply mad- and in fact by that point I was half-convinced that I was losing my reason.  I will simply state that it was pain that enabled me finally to break this hateful spell.  I spent one entire afternoon in the British Museum, feverishly researching the devices that these penitents had employed.  It had to be something secret, but something agonizing enough to get me not just to the doorstep, but beyond the black door.  In the end I settled on a ligature.”

Miss Grimes passed a gloved hand in front of her face; clearly, the memory itself was painful.  Steadying herself, she went on.

“Do I need to explain what a ligature is?”  Dwindle indicated that she didn’t, as was his way, then slowly nodded, once.  Miss Grimes smiled her small smile.

“A ligature is any sort of binding.  In the case of the medieval penitents, they were often savage things; one would have thought rather of diabolical than divine inspiration.  The one I finally chose consisted of twine and staples in a modern version of the thorns the saints employed.  A simple constricting binding like the one I placed on my finger might have caused me to limp, and I didn’t want anything to appear out of the ordinary as I would be taking an awful chance as it was.  So I constructed my ligature and attached it to my leg experimentally.  I won’t embarrass us both by describing just where it was placed.It had to be somewhere out of sight sitting or standing.  I hoped.. and I hoped,” here she paused again, lowering her head for a moment.  “I hoped, based on where the bruising had been, that there wasn’t a reason to believe that the device would be discovered.  But of course I didn’t know what to expect once I was within Davern’s walls.

“Almost as soon as the thing was cinched, I felt the dread summons again.  I was in a panic.  With no time to test the ligature, I simply gave it a final yank and stood, adjusting my dress.  And I nearly collapsed, gasping.  The pain was excruciating.  But I found, as I gingerly tried a step or two, that I could walk without a limp.  It required intense concentration, but that of course was the whole point, wasn’t it?  I tried to keep my face composed while I bent to gather my handbag and coat, knowing that any trace of the agony I was feeling would give the game away.  Already I could feel the familiar fog trying to descend, but the pain enabled me to keep it at bay.  In fact, I found that my surroundings had become clearer to me, amid the bright haze of pain.  In particular, my hearing seemed more acute. 

“I made my way gingerly to the underground station, which, based on my one lucid experience I believed to be my usual means of getting to the abode of my tormentor.  The pain increased alarmingly  as I walked, but then reached a plateau of sorts that proved tolerable- barely.  My heart sank as I thought of the walk of several blocks from the train to Davern’s address.  Walking down the steps to the platform was one of the most difficult things I have ever done.  Once there, I searched the advertising posters narrowly, trying to maintain focus.  Few commuters can have given those lurid blandishments the attention I gave them that day.  When the train came, I sat bolt upright in the car, trying to ease the pressure on my leg as much as I could, but not succeeding.  I felt a fugitive tickle that could only be my own blood oozing until it was caught at the top of my stocking.  I smiled grimly: the parallel with the ancient saints was exact.

“But all the while, my normal awareness remained.  The fog had receded to an infinite distance.  I knew who I was, where I was, where I was going.  But I had come this far before with my previous makeshifts: the real test would come when I passed through the black door.

“I’m sure you are as familiar with the discomforts of those interminable journeys on our London underground system as I am.  I can only say that those are as the blink of an eye compared to my trip that evening.  But I was encouraged.  At no time did my mind lapse into the dark dream that was my usual state on these trips.

“At length- at great length- I arrived at the underground station nearest Davern’s.  As I arose, a fresh bolt of pain went through my leg, and I staggered.  A gentleman seated opposite me half stood, offering a hand in concern.  I forced a smile to my face and shook my head.  Again, as I stepped forward, the pain gradually became tolerable.  I fear that I did limp for a few steps, but thought that might be excused by long sitting.  I prayed that the limp would not betray me once inside Davern’s.

“The walk was indeed a long one, made longer by the growing trepidation I felt as I approached the dreaded address.  Behind me, our infamous London fog followed, swallowing the reluctant streetlights one by one, as my own fog threatened to swallow my consciousness.  Then my steps slowed.  I realized that I had no plan in mind at all.  You will no doubt find that incredible, but how could I have had?  I had absolutely no idea what occurred beyond the black door, so how could I know to behave in whatever the usual fashion was?  Furiously, I considered.  I decided that I would simply act as normally as possible.  By which I mean, of course, to show no fear, no emotion of any sort, as if nothing were amiss.  I briefly considered, then discarded, a vision of Trilby in front of her Svengali, a thrall in mind and body.  In the first place, I didn’t think I could carry it off.  But more importantly, I realized that at these sessions I must have had enough self-possession to understand instructions and then act on them while in a state of utter subjection.  After all, I had apparently been able to act normally enough to defraud my clients while under Davern’s control.  And with that realization, I began to think of my predicament more as a periodic amnesia than a trance.  Though the end result was no different, it somehow made the whole ordeal seem less threatening.

“I mounted the steps, knocked on the door.  Immediately, it was opened by the loathsome assistant.  He scowled.  ‘What kept you?’ he grunted.  I tried to keep my face absolutely neutral, but I’m afraid that I betrayed my trepidation with the tiniest flaring of my nostrils as I took a final deep breath and stepped across the threshold.  Fortunately, his back was already turned by that time.

“I saw immediately that the situation was different this time.  I was still conscious, still aware.  I saw the hallway in all its ambiguous detail, as it had appeared on my first visit.  Every step burned excruciatingly, but that was keeping me sane.  I closed my eyes in silent gratitude and followed the wretch meekly enough.  Everything was muted, dim, as I remembered it.  But wasn’t there perhaps just the faintest of whispers that my heightened sense of hearing caught as Drax’s slippered feet dragged across the carpet?

“We came to the study door.  I stood passively while Drax knocked.  A voice came from within, but it was curt, gruff, not the mellifluous baritone that I remembered from the lecture series or the two séances.  Drax opened the door and motioned me inside.  The room was again lit by the four crystal chandeliers, but this time there was no welcoming fire on the hearth.  The room was in disarray, with glasses and take away cartons littering the floor and books laid anyhow, face down and spines cracking, on chairs and the carpet.  Clearly, there was no longer any pretense made at dignified gentility.  There was no one to impress but the unfortunate slave.

“Davern, arisen from his armchair, waited beside the familiar table, but it actually took me a moment to recognize him.  This was not the man that had so impressed at the lectures.  The magisterial robe was not in evidence.  He was slovenly in khakis and a wrinkled shirt open at the neck.  His feet were bare.  The beard, which had been neatly trimmed before, straggled untidily.  Where a man with Davern’s coloring probably needed to shave twice a day to maintain appearances, this man had obviously not shaved in several days; dark stubble rose out of his collar and covered his cheeks nearly to his eyes.  And such eyes!  The black eyes were still masterful, perhaps more so, but there was no attempt to conceal their true nature.  Cruelty and appetite were all that could be read on that face.  The effect was startling.  I felt sure that I was seeing the true person behind the professional mask and I was profoundly shaken.

“’So good of you to come, Miss Grimes,’ he said in mock courtesy.  ‘I hope we find you well this evening?’  The voice was slurred slightly, apparently from drink.  Behind me, I could hear Drax laugh aloud.  I continued to stare straight ahead, my face neutral, but behind the mask my brain was racing.  Did he expect a response?  Should I speak?  Could I speak?  I had no idea.  I didn’t know what was expected, or possible.  My face was stony, but I fear my eyes gave me away, darting in frightened glances around the room seeking any clue to the expected behavior.

“Fortunately, Davern didn’t seem to notice; he was frowning down at the table, which was the only thing in the room that wasn’t in disarray.  Then he looked up again.  ‘What’s the matter, cat got your tongue?  I asked you a question.’  So I could speak!  Still with a face made of wood, I murmured that I was well.  ‘Glad to hear it.  Come over here.’  I froze, staring at him as he curled and uncurled his huge hands at his sides.  ‘I said come here, you bitch.  Perhaps a refresher course in obedience is in order?’  His tone was icy.  The suave, plausible vowels and precise consonants of the distinguished lecturer were stripped away.  Without actually raising his voice, he made it so menacing, so imperious, that at that moment, it didn’t matter whether some part of myself was imprisoned in his box and physically in thrall to him or not: to disobey was unthinkable.  I may have cringed slightly, but I walked toward him.Apparently fear had been a part of our regular interactions, as the cruel smile returned, the thick lips pulling back to show the even white teeth.  ‘That’s better.  Behave yourself and correction won’t be necessary this time.  Although there may be time later for other amusements?’  The black eyes narrowed slightly and the smile became avid.  Despite my effort to maintain a stolid indifference, I fear my eyelids fluttered slightly at this.  He laughed.  ‘Such a pity that the memory of such things isn’t available when you return home, isn’t it, Miss Grimes?  Something to console a lonely spinster of an evening, eh?’

Thankfully, his eye dropped to the table then, and his blunt fingers tapped thoughtfully on the velvet cloth.  I dared to drop my own eyes at the same time.  And there it was- the box that was my prison!  The table was the only thing in the room that was in the same austere order that I remembered from my first visit.  The crease of the velvet cloth on the table top was exact, the trailing edges precisely kissing the carpet.  The black candles from the first séance were placed exactly equidistant from the table edges.  And precisely in the center of the table, I would be prepared to swear within the millimeter, sat the inlaid box.  The austere precision of that tabletop was the antithesis of slovenly.  The unmistakable contrast to the careless arrangement of the rest of the room underlined the importance of what sat upon it.

“Davern noticed my gaze.  ‘Ah, Miss Grimes.  Because you never remember afterward, we will now have the same conversation we have every time you grace us with your presence.  I can tell by the widened pupil, the subtly raised eyebrow, that you now understand just how life-changing our little tete-a-tete with the spirit world turned out to be.  I confess, regretfully, that I was not frank with you.  It was not your parents who awaited you in the box, but your own fate.  I keep it on the table to remind you of your bondage, but I also confess that I cannot help gloating at the dismay you are trying so valiantly to conceal.  So trusting, so willing to believe.  So unfortunate for you.  And so fortunate for me. 

“’No, no, Miss Graves,’ he said sharply as I moved a step closer to the table.  ‘Look but don’t touch.  Stealing it would not help you, as I am the only person in the world who has the secret of opening it.  And to break it open is to destroy what is inside.  What would become of you then, Miss Grimes, knowing what you now know about its contents?  What indeed would become of you?’  Then his lips curved in a sly smile.  ‘But what if there is in fact nothing in the box at all?  Perhaps I have lied to you about everything since we met?’  He shook his head sadly.  ‘But then how to explain your recent actions, Miss Grimes, your deplorable actions?  Were you really only waiting for someone whose authority you acknowledged to give permission- perhaps license is the better word- to indulge your own low urges?  Urges that had been held in check only for fear of what a frowning society would say?  How fragile is the civilizing instinct after all.  What if we all were as easily suborned as you, Miss Grimes?  What a wicked world this would be!’

“He was toying with me, professor.”  Natasha Grimes closed her eyes as if reciting.  “Then he told me terrible things, horrible things.  Confidential details about my clients whose faith I had apparently betrayed.  A mocking recounting of the sorrows and hopes I had concerning my parents’ deaths.  And about what he… What he and I… “  She fell silent, her lips pressed in a tight line.  When the violet eyes reopened, they were dark with the memory.  “But I had already made up my mind,” she said in a low voice.  “I would steal it somehow.  And if I couldn’t find anyone to help me open it, I would destroy it and take whatever consequences there were.  Better to be dead than to go on living as I was.”

“I felt his eyes on me, awaiting some sort of reaction.  I refused to give him the satisfaction, though my heart sank within me.  After a moment, he drummed his fingers sharply on the table then turned away.  ‘But time presses, I’m afraid,’ he said.  ‘There is no time for entreaties, and anyway I have grown bored with them.  They will not avail you.  And now to business.’

“With that brusque dismissal of the horrible cruelty of my plight, he produced a paper from his wallet.  As I had feared and suspected, it was a list of some very valuable objets d’art and other antique rarities that I held in trust for some of my oldest clients.  It was now being acted upon.  I am afraid that a tear found its way from my eye onto my cheek at the confirmation, but Davern paid no attention.  It had no doubt been repeated at our every encounter.  He proceeded rapidly to describe what it was he wanted done with these precious things.  I had to admit that there was a deal of cunning in the schemes that he proposed, and in the safeguards that he erected around himself in realizing the proceeds of the illegal sales to come.  It was cleverly arranged so that all the blame would be laid to my account and no trace of his involvement would be found.  I listened, distracted, and wondered how it was that I remembered all of this later, but I was evidently in a more receptive state when pain was not altering my usual trancelike condition.

“He had got perhaps halfway through the list of transactions, which was a lengthy one.  Evidently greed was prompting an increased pace of betrayed trust now that he, a cautious man, knewsuccess.  And then, professor, a miracle occurred.”

Dwindle sat up straighter.

“At that moment, the lights went out.  The four crystal chandeliers went dark, as did the green-shaded banker’s lamps on the large mahogany table.  It was black as pitch.I saw the hand of my parents in this.  And without even thinking, I reached down to where I knew the box to be, grabbed it, and ran for the door.  Pain was forgotten.”

“Power outages are not exactly unknown in the great metropolis of London, Miss Grimes,” Dwindle observed drily.  “But Belgravia?  Perhaps you have a point.  I believe the London Electricity Board tries to see to it that such unfortunate events occur in the East End at the expense of our immigrant population, on the old Soviet model.”

“Soviet model?”

“Yes.  Rather cynical. ‘The shortage will be divided amongst the peasants.’”

Miss Grimes looked blank.

Dwindle flushed, frowned.  “Never mind,” he said.  “Before your time.  But what then?  How were you able to navigate your way to the door?  And there was the assistant to think about.”

“I can only think my parents guided my steps,” she said simply.  “My hand fell unerringly on the doorknob.  I twisted it, opened the door and was through in an instant.  Neither Davern nor his lackey had time to realize what had happened.  I slammed the door shut, feeling in vain for some kind of key to lock it, but there was nothing.  And then I was away down the hall.  I had not gotten more than a few steps when the lights came back on.  It had all happened so quickly, I imagine it seemed to the two conspirators that I had vanished into thin air.

“I fled down the corridor, the box clutched tightly to my breast.  The thick carpet runner muffled my own steps completely and in my terrified state I imagined that one of them might already be close enough to put his hands on my neck, where the hairs were bristling in panicked anticipation.  Risking a look over my shoulder as I reached the street door, I saw that the door to the study was still mercifully closed.  Heart pounding, I yanked fruitlessly on the handle for a moment before realizing that the door had been locked.  I fumbled the deadbolt back, twisted the handle and skipped outside, not bothering to close it.  I stumbled down the steps and away.

“I got as far as the corner, purely on adrenaline, when the pain in my leg became a searing lightning bolt.  I am nearly certain that I screamed aloud.  I collapsed, weeping, on the curb.  Not caring who saw, I pulled up my skirts and released the ligature.  I screamed anew as the cruel barbs tore away from the flesh, but the relief was immediate.  I took a handkerchief from my bag and daubed hastily at the blood.  I looked about me, hoping to see someone, anyone, but the street was deserted as before.  The door to Davern’s house still stood open, but as I watched, it swung slowly and silently shut.  I arose hastily, put myself in as decent an order as I could under such conditions, and wobbled off toward the underground station.  At no time did I meet a single soul until I stood on the platform, breathing heavily and wretchedly awaiting the next train.  At every instant, I expected to see one or both of my tormentors appear on the platform, but it remained empty.  I am unable to account for the fact that they did not attempt to follow me, but perhaps it was fear of a scandal that prevented it.  Or perhaps Davern felt that even with the box in my possession rather than his, as long as it remained intact I would still be in some measure under his influence.”

“Or he had simply acknowledged defeat, assuming that you would soon see, in one way or another, that you were never under his influence in the first place.”

Miss Grimes shook her head firmly.  “But the facts, professor, the facts.  It won’t do.”  She stood up, stretched her arms and took a distracted turn around the study.  Dwindle pulled the belt of his bathrobe more tightly around his middle and simply waited.  Presently she returned to her chair.  She placed her hands on the armrests and leaned forward.  “And most of the rest of it you already know, professor, or can guess.  I vacillated from moment to moment, now thinking that if Davern could open it, surely someone else could do the same, and the next moment resolving to smash the thing as soon as I reached my flat and dare the world to do its worst.  When at last I reached the station nearest my home, prudence, or perhaps cowardice when it came to the event, prevailed.  I limped home, set the box carefully on the bathroom dresser and spent the next three quarters of an hour in the tub attempting to put myself back together. 

“The pain when I submerged my injured leg was immense but I gritted my teeth and stayed put.  In a few moments, the bath salts began to soothe the worst of it.  I steadfastly refused to look at the pink-stained suds, and gradually it ceased to occupy all of my attention.  I was able to consider what was to be done next.  Again, prudence seemed to dictate a conservative approach.  I would first try to open the box and only after that failed would I again think of opening it by other means.  I got out of the tub, dried myself and applied ointment gingerly to my wound, which again brought tears to my eyes.  I inspected it carefully and saw that the gouges, though ugly, were superficial and that preventing infection would be enough.  I bound it in a plaster, put on my dressing gown, and then carried the box to my desk and sat down. 

“I convinced myself through some desultory poking at the gemmed dials that I would not except by the merest chance be able to open it myself and so began to look for help.  A few minutes of searching such terms as ‘puzzle’ and ‘code’ and the like produced a link to a news story about a recent success that the eminent cryptologist Arthur Dwindle had had for Her Majesty’s government, details unfortunately omitted under the Official Secrets acts, and I had my man.  Another few minutes reading biographical material told me that you were to be found residing in King’s Ley, an hour and a half or so’s journey from London.  It was absurdly easy to locate you.  Really, professor, seclusion for eminent men like yourself is no longer possible in this day and age.”

Dwindle bowed slightly at the compliment, but observed: “That cliff path, Miss Grimes.  It usually suffices to discourage visitors, particularly at night, although lately it is less so.  I may look into keeping dogs once more.”

Miss Grimes smiled.  “I resolved to hunt you up that very evening.  I came by the earliest train to King’s Ley with the box at my side, never letting it out of my sight.  After my recent experiences on the underground, I found the journey quite pleasant.  Of course my heart was lighter than it had been in many weeks, and all about me the world was a vivid, vibrant place of colors and sounds and smells once more.  I felt reborn.  Upon reaching King’s Ley and after depositing my small belongings at the inn, but never letting go of the box for an instant, I appeared on your doorstep and here we are.”

“Indeed.  Here we are.  And my question still is: how can I possibly be of aid?  You have recovered your independence.  Regarding the means of achieving this we continue to hold differing opinions, but that is irrelevant.  You might try a false imprisonment action against Waverly, but I suspect there would be difficulties in proving anything, although I am not a barrister.  After hearing your harrowing account, I feel the deepest horror at and sympathy for your experience, but why not let the past be past?  Surely nothing is served by continuing to dredge up these memories and mull desperate remedies.”

Even as he mouthed these platitudes, Dwindle felt their entire inadequacy to Miss Grimes’s situation.  She looked at him levelly, expressionlessly until he had to grasp his knee rather sharply to stifle an incipient fidget.

“You disappoint me, professor.  I thought I had your measure, but perhaps I was wrong.  After the outrage I have suffered, meek retreat is simply not an option.  I too had thought of the legal remedy and had rejected it, but not for the reason you suppose.  The most Davern-Waverly would have received in punishment would have been insignificant compared to what I endured.  No, that avenue is closed: that sort of punishment is an added insult to my injury.  What I want is revenge, professor.  I want him to suffer as I have suffered.  And so the means of my injury is not irrelevant, as you so carelessly asserted.  I want him imprisoned in his own box, his very life at hazard, as mine was.  Nothing less will do.  And I need your help to accomplish it.”

Davern was aghast.  “But think what you are saying, Miss Grimes.  Be reasonable.  The box is now back in his possession.  Even if I granted that he could be served as you were, how would you do it?  You certainly can’t confront him with his own guilt and expect him to crawl penitently into the box, can you?  Metaphorically, of course,” he added.

  “He is as fervent a believer in the magic of the box as I was and am, professor.  If we can manage to get close enough to him, I believe we can accomplish it.  Recall that he did not pursue me when I escaped.  You have told his henchmen that you did not manage to open the box.  I think he believes that.  And so he may, incredible as it seems, still think that I will eventually show up at his door once again, an abject slave still in his thrall.  And if I, or rather we, can get that close to him, the tables can be turned and it will be I who will have the whip hand.  Here is how we do it…”

****

And so it was that Arthur Dwindle, reclusive consultant, muffled to the eyes, found himself in a curiously empty street in a particularly tony section of old London town, staring at a black door that answered in every particular to what Natasha Grimes had described. Moments before, Miss Grimes herself had slipped through the door, which had opened silently at the first muffled thud from the ornate brass knocker.  Almost as if they had expected her, thought Dwindle.  He pulled his eared cap more firmly down over his head and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, partially from cold but mostly from a bad case of nerves.  He had conducted himself bravely enough on the trip on the underground, not wanting his client to see how nervous he was, but now that she was no longer at his side, his mind raced ahead to the myriad possibilities for this adventure to go very badly wrong.  The pleasant warmth of the fortifying nip he had surreptitiously taken when Miss Grimes’s back was turned at the tube station had faded.  He fingered the flask in his overcoat pocket indecisively, at length deciding to leave it where it was.  It would have been only to take the chill off, he told himself, but still, he didn’t want to face his old nemesis while inebriated.  Where Miss Grimes appeared to fear the possible supernatural consequences of their foray, Dwindle had his own reasons for dreading the encounter with a person of whom he had only the most unpleasant memories.  It wasn’t fear, of course, not exactly, but it would undoubtedly be a most awkward sort of meeting.

He stopped his hand reaching for the flask again.  He could think of absolutely nothing to say that wouldn’t sound completely ridiculous.  “So, Waverly, we meet again!”  The corners of his mouth turned down in distaste.  “Unhand that woman!”  He suppressed a groan.  Perhaps Waverly would provide the opening conversational gambit to which he could respond with an unanswerable rejoinder.  Whatever that might be- he was unable to imagine it.  Or maybe he would simply stand and stare stupidly, not knowing what to do with his hands or anything else.  Unthinkingly, he put his gloved hands into his overcoat pockets.  Maybe he should have brought a pistol.  Because now he thought of it, too late of course, Miss Grimes’s plan was, to be charitable, short on details.  He felt a rising irritation that he had let himself be led, numbly, from his comfortable study to a deserted street corner in London in deepest evening.  Against his better judgement, or really any judgement at all, he had allowed himself to be talked into a scheme that at best would prove to be acutely painful socially and at worst might well result in his arrest.  Let’s see, he thought, breaking and entering, simple harassment, terroristic threats.  And he still could not see any possible role for himself in all this except possibly comic relief.  What an idiot he had been.  But there was still time to retrieve the situation and his dignity.

“Pfaw!” he muttered in disgust and was on the point of turning around and heading back to the station.  Let them sort this farce themselves.  And stopped.  It was, of course, the damsel in distress consideration that made retreat impossible.  A gentleman did not abandon a lady in her hour of need.  He recalled the earnest violet eyes under the sooty lashes.  The small gloved hand on his forearm.  He felt the same strange stirring in his vitals.  He thought ruefully that he had been right after all about the role of hypnotism in this whole fiasco, but it was he who had been hypnotized somehow, not Natasha Grimes.

He stared disconsolately at the black door.  What little plan there was called for him to give Miss Grimes a few minutes’ head start and then follow her into the house.  He hadn’t looked at his wristwatch, but surely all this mental hand-wringing had consumed at least that much time.  He jammed his gloved hands into his overcoat pockets and marched across the street and up the steps.

Once at the door, he paused.  A fitful wind blew a few skeletal leaves in a small whirlwind in the area below the stairs.  Cautiously, he placed his hand on the polished brass door knob that reflected dimly the yellow glow of the street lamp opposite.  Miss Grimes had assured him that he would find the door unlocked: she would manage somehow to distract Drax so that he wouldn’t remember to lock it.  And apparently she had.  The knob turned easily and the door swung inward on silent hinges.  Or, he thought, as his foot crossed the threshold, perhaps they were expecting some ploy on her part and this was an elaborate trap.  To his credit, his foot hesitated only momentarily before he placed it on the foyer parquetry, quickly following it with the other foot and pushing the door shut behind him. Then, in a panic, he whirled and felt for the locking mechanism.  The last thing he wanted was to cut off the means of his, or rather their, escape.  He was relieved to find that the door did not automatically lock itself, which he should have realized from the fact that he had found it unlocked in the first place.  Get a grip, Dwindle, he told himself.  He took another cautious step forward.  The parquet squeaked dismally.  The light of the single ceiling light fixture in the foyer filtered thinly through an ornate painted glass shade, but it was enough to show the way toward the hall leading into the interior of the house.  He tiptoed silently on the thick hallway carpet, past the white balusters of the staircase leading to the upper floors.  He glanced about him, noting approvingly the keenness of Miss Grimes’s eye and the accuracy of her descriptions.  Here were the faded gold wall covering and heavy drapes noted at her first visit, and the dim obscurity that was all the widely spaced sconces provided.  The carpeting was so thick it was almost possible to lose one’s balance on it.  Not being an imaginative man himself, he could nonetheless see how disorienting all this must have been to the impressionable Miss Grimes.  He moved past three doors on his right, toward what could only be the door to Waverly’s library at the end of the hall.  A sliver of light showed under the door.  As he advanced, he could hear sudden voices behind that door: a man’s raised in exasperation and a woman’s in answer.  Stepping quickly forward, he opened the door and stepped inside to a curious scene.

A man in a dressing gown stood with his back to the door, facing Natasha Grimes, who stood with head held proudly high near a table covered in a black cloth.  The thick shoulders and large hands showed unmistakably, though over an interval of forty years, that Dwindle was in the presence of Wyvern Waverly, his ancient foe from schoolboy days.  Waverly, both arms raised shoulder high in irritation, seemed puzzled at her behavior.  A scornful light showed in Miss Grimes’s violet eyes.  At a sudden movement caught in the corner of his eye, Dwindle turned to face Waverly’s assistant.  There was a sharp gasp and, in a moment of mutual recognition, Dwindle saw once again the rat-faced man that had accosted him on the path to King’s Ley.  There was no mistaking the sharp nose and bright rodent eyes.  Then Waverly turned slowly around to face them.  Blank disbelief, then consternation, then anger, then a sort of sly amusement followed each other across the dark visage.  He said nothing, but stood looking Dwindle up and down and pulling on his thick black beard.  The silence lengthened.  At last he laughed, a sour laugh with no humor in it.

“So you followed her here?  I might have guessed you would.  I am informed that even the illustrious Arthur Dwindle was unable to solve the puzzle of the box.  Defeat is an unpleasant thing to admit, isn’t it?  Although you ought to have become used to it from our jousting at school.  Surely you can’t expect that I will reveal the secret to you now, though?  No, wait, I know- there is the matter of the consulting fee.  You have dogged your client’s footsteps over the matter of an unpaid bill.  That is how you earn your bread, isn’t it?  But Miss Grimes is a canny businesswoman, as I and others have reason to know: perhaps she has said no results, no fee?”  The wolfish teeth flashed.  But then the thick lips drew down in a parody of mock understanding as another thought seemed to occur.  “Ah, how stupid of me!  You’re here as her champion, aren’t you?  Of course!  She tells a persuasive story, and even a bloodless clerk like you isn’t immune to feminine charms.”  Waverly gestured with his arm at Natasha Grimes, inviting Dwindle to regard her.  “She is lovely, isn’t she?  Perhaps you’d like a taste of her yourself?  It is easily arranged, believe me.”  Again the wolfish grin.  “Or is that to be part of the yet unpaid fee?  It would take something nearly irresistible to drag a recluse like you out of his hole.”  Waverly laughed again.

Dwindle felt his ears burning.  As he had feared, he was dumbstruck.  The perfect rejoinder was not simply elusive; it was unthinkable.  Waverly’s tauntings were nearer the mark than he had been able to admit to himself and he stared at the floor, unable to meet Waverly’s knowing gaze.

“But perhaps I can be of help in collecting that fee, Dwindle.  It would be an amusing demonstration of my power over our Miss Grimes.  Amusing for me, exciting for you, eh?  And convincing for Miss Grimes herself, I hope.  When you burst in upon us, we were having a regrettable disagreement and I feared that I would have to resort to physical corrective to secure her cooperation.  Unfortunate, but sometimes unavoidable.  But this is much better.  Humiliation is an even more effective corrective.  And for you, Dwindle?  Would you be able to enjoy it?  I am fascinated to find out.  For, as you know, I have very little reason to wish you well.”  The last remark, delivered in a whipcrack tone of voice, startled Dwindle into raising his eyes once more.  Waverly was grinning savagely at him and motioning Miss Grimes forward from her place by the table.  “Come here, my dear.  It seems there is a financial matter remaining to be settled between you and Professor Dwindle.  But there is a service you can do him.  An exchange in the barter economy, if you like.  Off the books, as you seem to prefer.”

Seconds passed.  Waverly motioned again, then looked over his shoulder in irritation.  But Miss Grimes didn’t move.  The violet eyes were unwavering, the chin firm, and a small, rather cruel smile of her own played on her lips.

“No, Dr. Davern, or shall I call you by your right name?  No, Mr. Waverly, no, not this time, not ever again.  I am free of you at last.  Your disgusting insinuations regarding Professor Dwindle and myself I will simply ignore.  But you cannot command obedience in other matters, either.  Your power over me is gone.”

Waverly turned slowly towards her, huge hands clenching and unclenching.  In a low, menacing voice through clenched teeth, he grated: “Is that so?  Then what are you doing here, I wonder?  Surely you haven’t come back because you’ve missed me and Drax, have you?  No, you are compelled by the box, resist it desperately as you might.  You are drawn, you will continue to be drawn, and you will obey, by God!”  He slammed a fist into his palm.

Miss Grimes was unbowed.  “Ah, the box,” she purred.  She reached over to the table, caressed the top of the box with one finger.  “But I am no longer the prisoner of the box, don’t you see?  The box is empty.  Professor Dwindle has discovered the secret of the box and opened it.  He has beaten you, Waverly.”

Waverly’s mouth fell open.  “Impossible!” he said, striding to the table.  He planted both hands on the table, looked closely at the box.  The two black candles in the tall glass vases on either side of the box wavered briefly, then steadied again. “Dwindle himself admitted to my men that he had not been able to crack the puzzle.”  He whirled around, confronting Drax, who cowered against the door.  “Drax!  Isn’t that so?  Didn’t you and Mapleton tell me that the box had not been opened when you took it from Dwindle?”

Trapped, Drax looked desperately from Dwindle to Waverly and back again.  “Yes,” he said.  “Yes!  That’s what he told us, on the cliff path.  That he had tried and failed.”  He looked back at Dwindle for confirmation.

“Ah, well, I may have said that,” said Dwindle, clearing his throat and able to speak at last.  “Don’t know why I did, really.  Spur of the moment.  It seemed the safer thing to say, late at night, on a lonely path, when confronted by two unfriendly gentlemen who might have had further questions about the contents if I had admitted it.  But I’m afraid it wasn’t true.”  This last, almost apologetically.  “I did in fact open it.  Not that hard once you really took a look at the thing.”

“Nonsense!  Impossible!”  Waverly’s blunt fingers felt for the gemmed dials, fumbled a bit with the combination.  “You wouldn’t be here if your soul essence weren’t still within the box.  You would be as far away from here as it is possible to be and still be in England.”

“Open it, see for yourself,” said Miss Grimes coolly.

“Or maybe she was never in it,” offered Dwindle.  “and has only now realized it.  Suggestion is a powerful force, as you know, but can in time be overcome with the right help when one is removed from the malign influence.”

“Of course she was in it!  As she well knew, and as I was certain.  She has done things, things she cannot remember, that were unthinkable for a woman of her character.  She was drawn here tonight.  I will indeed open the box, after certain precautions are taken to prevent escape, though I cannot doubt what I will find, and you will all know the truth.”

With the tiniest of clicks, the dials came to a halt.  Even Drax crowded forward to see.  “All hope abandon,” in tiny, glinting green letters was formed by the gem chips.  Waverly reached into the pocket of his robe, fumbled a moment, and withdrew the stoppered vial that Miss Grimes had seen on two other occasions.  Cautiously, infinitely slowly, he raised the lid a fraction and then administered two drops of the liquid to the interior in rapid succession.  The familiar odors suffused the room. He then raised the lid completely- on nothing at all.

Waverly gasped, then groaned.  Sea breeze, earth, pines, immaculate joinery, but that was all.  No hint of the jasmine perfume.  The box was empty.  But then, as they watched, fugitive wisps of vapor began to form in the interior, drifted to the lip of the box and then over the edge and onto to the table.  The agonized look on Waverly’s face changed to one of doubtful hope.

Miss Grimes looked alarmed, put one hand to her mouth.  “Can I have been mistaken after all?  There does appear to be something within.”

Waverly turned his head, regarded her with a maniacal glare.  “Mistaken indeed, my dear.”

“But I don’t feel trapped.  Look closer, there is some mistake, I’m sure.”

Waverly’s black eyes narrowed as he searched her face.  It was true, the look of blank despair that had been the hallmark of his dominion over his captive was gone, replaced by a healthy glow that had not been there in weeks.  Frowning, he returned his attention to the box.  The vapors were now curling across the table mesmerizingly.  They reached the vases on both sides of the box and began to twine upward around them.  The flames fluttered, wavered, danced in the embrace.  Waverly leaned closer, eyes darting, examining every corner of the box.

Then his expression changed to one of growing horror.  His eyes opened painfully wide; the eyelids fluttered.  Thick drops of oily sweat began to roll down the low forehead.  The cords on his neck stood out starkly as he tried to pull back from the box.  His fingers clutched spasmodically.  His mouth opened wide and a low, animal sound came out.  Dwindle stepped back, horrified.  It seemed to him that he had never heard anything as suggestive of utter despair.  With a superhuman effort, Waverly wrenched his head around and his rolling eyes fell for an instant on Miss Grimes in a last, anguished appeal.  But then, inexorably, he was pulled back toward the box. 

And then, abruptly, the face became utterly blank.  The eyelids fluttered again, once, twice, then the dark eyes became opaque.  Slowly, they closed.  The massive head fell forward.

And at that precise instant, Miss Grimes leaned forward and snapped the lid of the box shut.  She spun the dials to lock it.  The crawling vapors dissipated and the candle flames dipped once, as if in benediction, and then abruptly were extinguished.  There was no subsequent smoke.  “’Ye who enter here,’” murmured Dwindle to himself.

There was a muted exclamation from Drax, impossible to interpret.  He backed slowly away from the stillness that now enveloped the tableau, then spun and ran through the door.  In a few seconds,  the sound of the heavy street door being slammed was heard.

Natasha Grimes turned to Arthur Dwindle, a triumphant smile on her face.  Dwindle thought she had never looked so lovely.  Then she calmly reached for the ornate wooden box and held it to her breast.  With a last unreadable glance at the slumped figure of Wyvern Waverly, she said, “Come, professor, I think our work here is done.”

********

Dawn on the following morning found Arthur Dwindle and Miss Grimes on the bank of the Thames, near the Isle of Dogs.  They had left Miss Grimes’s rather tired Ford Fiesta in the vast carpark of an abandoned industrial building.  Optimistic weeds grew here and there through the cracked surface. Dwindle was unable to guess to what use the building might have originally been put. 

They walked the last few blocks to the river.  The morning mist was just beginning to break up in small eddies and phantom gyres.  The chill breeze lifted the ebony hair from Miss Grimes’s fine forehead, and she pulled her loden cloak more firmly about her shoulders.  Dwindle stood hunched in his customary overcoat and cap.  A single drop hung from his reddened nose, and he pulled one gloved hand from his overcoat pocket to intercept it.

“So you see, professor,” she was saying, “In the end it was his own ego that trapped him.  He knew well enough how dangerous it was to get too close to the open box when the magic was active, but he simply could not believe that he had failed and that I had escaped.  We tricked him into looking, and that was his downfall.  If one’s face comes close enough to the box, there is no escape.”

“You tricked him, you mean.  I merely stood by.  And you believe that the liquid in the vial is the key to the magic?”

“That, and the will of the practitioner to make it so.  Steadfast belief in oneself and the power of the occult.”

“Ah, belief.  That word again.  I still maintain that it was your own belief that put you in thrall to Waverly, not any voodoo spell.  He hypnotized you, fed you some mumbo-jumbo.  And you were eventually able to realize what had happened and throw off the influence.”

Dwindle felt the steady violet gaze on him once more, and suppressed an urge to fidget.

Miss Grimes sighed, but when she spoke there was a hint of amusement in her voice.  “So, professor, you still won’t believe.  And so you won’t acknowledge your own role in my release.  But I tell that I would still be a helpless slave to Waverly if you hadn’t opened that box and freed me.  I will be forever grateful.”

Dwindle felt his ears reddening.  He harrumphed, attributed it to the cold.

Miss Grimes laughed- a light, teasing, musical note.  “It is your own belief, and it is no more than a belief, in the rational nature of the world, against Waverly’s belief in the magic that now imprisons him.  You saw with your own eyes his subjugation.  And you are no doubt at this moment thinking what a ridiculous charade we are engaged in here on the riverbank.  And yet here you are, professor, here you are.  Why, if there is not some corner of your mind that accepts what your eyes could not deny?”

Dwindle did not reply.  Miss Grimes drew the ornate wooden box from under her cloak, stooped down gracefully to the muddy bank.  Holding one arm out behind her for Dwindle to grasp, she reached out as far as she could.  She placed the box on the flowing bosom of the waters.  The current, augmented by the ebbing tide, ran swiftly along the shore.  It claimed the box, spun it round quickly, and bore it off down the shoreline.  Dwindle shaded his eyes against the growing light on the red horizon and watched.  The sea breeze blowing against the river current kicked up numerous choppy wavelets.  He gave a small exclamation, squinted his eyes carefully.  The box was sinking.

“How can that be?” he wondered aloud.  “It is a hollow wooden box.  Dense tropical woods, true, but still…”

“The guilty weight of that soul will send it to the bottom sooner rather than later,” Miss Grimes said grimly.  “I will admit that I am somewhat disappointed, though.  I had envisioned Waverly wandering endlessly along the seashore, waiting in vain for the box to be borne back to land.  It appears that won’t happen.”

“What do you suppose will happen to him now?”

“I suspect that he will eventually wither and die, professor.  I myself was fading badly before I managed to purloin the box from Waverly’s house.  I think that I would not have lasted another month.”

Dwindle, frowned, shook his head slightly.  “Like those poor innocents in Haiti that are said to expire because they felt they had been hexed by the witch doctor?  Rubbish.”

“A death is a death, professor, by whatever agency.”

“Or no agency at all.”

They were silent for a spell, watching the slowly settling box as the red sun rose above the estuary marshes, burning off the last of the mists. At last, at the limit of vision, they saw the box do one more slow pirouette and then sink beneath the waters.  They saw- or did they only imagine they saw?- through the sunlit seagreen interior of the engulfing wavelet a last gemlike glint from the locking dial.  And then it was gone.

Dwindle cleared his throat.  “’All hope abandon, ye who enter here,” he said quietly.  Miss Grimes nodded.  He shook himself, stamped his numb feet.  “And that ends a most amazing experience, Miss Grimes, perhaps the most amazing of my career.  I thank you for that.  But I will also be very glad to get back to my own home and my humble study and studies.  If you would be so good as to drop me at King’s Cross on your way home, I would be most grateful.”

Natasha Grimes hooked her arm through the professor’s.  The violet eyes under the sooty lashes regarded him coolly.  She brushed a strand of ebony hair from her face with one gloved hand.  A small smile curved the full lips.

“Not quite the end, professor.  There is still the matter of your fee to be discussed.”


© Copyright 2017 Norman Donald Bloom. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

More Mystery and Crime Short Stories

Booksie 2017-2018 Short Story Contest

Booksie Popular Content

Other Content by Norman Donald Bloom

Popular Tags