The Only Gift - Chapter 3

(part 3 of the Trilogy - A Great and Thorough Good)

In the courtroom the next morning, Catherine mustered her professional strength with three cups of strong coffee and Joe and she were relatively successful - only one continuance out of the three morning appearances.
“Three down and only about a hundred to go,” Joe rubbed his face hard as he spoke. “You hungry? You better put something in there with all that caffeine, Cathy.”
“Can we take more than thirty-two minutes this time?”
Ha ha.” He checked his watch. “This judge will be in a hurry to get through the afternoon. Friday and all, you know ... so I’m thinking, forty minutes at the outside. We get back early and rack up some brownie points if we’re sitting there waiting on him.”
“That’s not how the legal system is supposed to work!” Cathy said, feigning horror.
“What time is the forensic accountant showing up?”
“I told her 1:30.”
“Call her, see if she can push that to 1:00. Hey, how about a souvlaki. That cart with the funny mirrors has great ones.”
“I like the falafel from that man with the red and blue wagon better.”
“Picky, aren’t you Radcliffe.”
They sat at a stone table on stone seats, where Joe ate his souvlaki and half her sandwich. “You know, you’re right about those falafel. Pretty tasty.” He downed his soda in a gulp. “What happened to your appetite?” He went on without letting her answer. “What are you doing this weekend? I’ve got this buddy coming in. I think you’d like him. We went through law school together. Smart, funny, real good looking, like me.” Joe grinned at her, “Likes blues music. I thought we’d go to the 55 Bar over on Christopher Street. Wanna go?”
Her reaction was instinctive and she had to control her tongue. She wanted to tell him, to tell Joe, who was her friend, why she couldn’t meet his buddy, not in the way he meant. But she refrained and only shook her head. “Can’t,” she said innocently. “I’ve already made plans, but thanks.”
“Really, I think you’d like this guy. His name’s Ben, and trust me, he’s not a loser. He’s a Mets fan.”
“That’s enough right there.” Catherine said with a laugh. “But really, I can’t. There’s ... well, I ... I can’t.”
Joe looked at her with curiosity. “You’re not telling me something I probably need to know, Radcliffe.”
She just smiled at him and gathered their lunch detritus to throw away.
“Do you have a sister, Cathy?” he said to her back. Under his breath, he said, “I sure wish you did sometimes.”

They were early back to the courtroom and she had time to go through the mail she'd retrieved from her father’s entryway and stuffed in her bag the night before. She’d forwarded his mail to her address, or so she’d thought, but a dozen or so envelopes were missed this time, a mish-mash of charity event announcements and travel advertisements, except for one letter.
She gasped when she read the return address.
777? What's going on?” she muttered, as she slipped the page out of its envelope.
< Dear Mr. Chandler,

The item you desired proved elusive, however, we did not abandon our search! Though it has been several months since you made your request, we are happy to inform you that we have been notified of its imminent arrival!

We do so hope you will be pleased with our find. We will hold this treasure for your perusal at our shop. Please visit at your earliest convenience.


It was signed in a swirling hand that looked suspiciously like Smythe.

PS. I’ve been told the “illustrations” are simply beautiful.


Attached to the letter was a copy of the receipt for her father’s order. The page was smudged and she couldn’t make out what was ordered, but she could read the date.
She read the date again. And then she read it a third time.
“That’s simply not possible!” she said not quite to herself, capturing Joe’s attention.
“Cathy, you don’t look so good. What’s the matter?”
“I don’t think that falafel agreed with me,” she said, faking a cough and stuffing the letter back into her bag. It would not do at all to involve Joe in this situation. Given the circumstances, she didn’t know what might be waiting for her at 777. She longed to bolt from the room.
Checking her watch, she began praying for continuances.
Smythe ...” she growled to herself. “Illustrations? What could that ... Kristopher?”
Daddy?” she wondered, in amazement.

She flew from the courthouse steps to hail a cab, leaving Joe to shake his head.
“Whoever she’s headed for, he’s one lucky guy,” Joe thought. Turning to Rita, he asked, “How about a happy hour? And what are you doing this weekend, I got this buddy coming in ...”

The door to 777 was locked and the windows were dark, but she rapped hard on the glass and rattled the latch.
“I didn’t know the used book business was so ... urgent,” a man said. She whirled on the shopkeeper from next door.
“Where is Mr. Smythe? What time does he open tomorrow? Tell me!!!
“Lady, I don’t keep tabs on him. Sometimes he’s here and sometimes he’s not.”
The shopkeeper scooted back inside, leaving Catherine heaving for breath on the sidewalk. She gave the door one last yank believing she might rip it off its hinges when she was sure she saw movement inside. She pressed close to the glass, shading her eyes with both hands. Was someone in there? Wearing a ball cap?
Kristopher!” she yelled. “Get over here and open this door!
She waited and watched, but the shadows stilled. There was nothing to do but return home.
She would be back.

___________________

Vincent could sense her agitation. Her energy snapped through him, ricocheting, revving his heart rate, and for a brief moment he thought, for the first time he could remember, that it might be a good thing he was so far away from her. It was a curious sensation, one that held no danger he could discern. Not for her, anyway, though he believed she might be the dangerous one this night.
“I don’t think we can finish this today,” Cullen sighed, leaning against the stone and sliding down to a crouch. “I’ll be glad when Kanin gets back. I’m just not sure about the strength of this wall.”
Vincent rested his muscles, stretching out his arms and arching his back. “This is complicated,” he agreed. “But I think we have it in hand. Another day, perhaps a little less, if we make an early start tomorrow.”
“I think I might fall asleep right now,” Cullen said, yawning. “But I could probably manage a couple more hours.”
“Mouse will be back soon with our supper and the bolts we need, and I need to get a message to Pascal for Catherine. Rest until Mouse and I return.” Vincent swept down the tunnel to the nearest pipe. He would not be home, below or above, tonight.
He had the feeling that Catherine was not going to like that.

Mouse trudged up the corridor with a bag of tools and supplies and a knapsack of food. Vincent took the tool bag from him, lightening his load but not his demeanor.
“You seem ... glum, Mouse.”
“Need advice.”
“Concerning ...?”
“Women.”
Ah.”
“Messed up, I think. Don’t know, exactly.”
“Tell me. Perhaps I can offer you ... insight.”
Mouse was silent for several paces, though his face showed his many emotions.
“Kissed her.”
“An auspicious beginning ...”
“No. Ending.”
“Tell me the whole story, Mouse. In a bit more detail, if you can.”
“Okay, then, fine. Kissed her. She said, needed practice.”
“Go on.” Vincent encouraged him with a hand to his shoulder and a smile.
“I said, okay good, okay fine, with who? Brooke? Miriam?” Mouse hung his head. “Jamie said, hopeless. Stomped off." Mouse looked plaintively up at Vincent and wailed, "She said, practice!”
“Mouse, I think she meant you and she should ... practice.”
“Oh.” Mouse grew more morose. "Didn't get it."
“Perhaps, you can repair the misunderstanding tomorrow, when we return.”
“Kinda scared of her now.” Mouse shuddered at the thought.
“Be brave, Mouse.”
“Worth it?”
“Worth it.”

_____________________

Catherine headed straight for her basement without even stopping by her apartment. She was whirling from the bottom rung when Zach ran through the doorway.
Yah!” she squealed.
Yipes!” he cried.
They both put their hands over their hearts and struggled to quiet their breath.
“Wow, Catherine.” Zach was the first able to speak. “Thanks for not karate-chopping me.”
“You’re welcome,” she wheezed. “You came this close–” she said, her fingers pinched together, “to going down.”
They broke into smothered laughter.

“To what, or to whom, do I owe this visit, Zach?”

“Message from Vincent.” He was still a bit winded, both from his run to her basement and the surprise of her. “On the pipes. There was a security emergency near an entrance, way up north. He wanted you to know. They have to spend the night up there.”
“Oh.” She was deflated by the news. The letter from Smythe was burning her with its curiousness and impossibility. She wanted to share it. Now. She wanted Vincent to bash a hole in 777’s basement so she could ransack the place.
Thwarted. She did not enjoy being thwarted.
But she recovered for Zach’s sake and sent him back with a return message for Vincent – that she would occupy herself and that he should be careful. And then she climbed the ladder, resigned to wait for resolution, though she gave the door a little kick as she closed it.
She winced and hopped a few steps, “Ouch!”
She was restless, her pent-up energy agitating for release. I can’t just … sit here.
From the shelf on her closet, she pulled an overnight bag. Dad’s. She needed to tag the furniture for the movers – all that would go to storage and then be moved below – and she’d called a dealer to appraise the remaining antiques. Those would need a special designation. She rummaged her desk for colored stickers, sure she’d purchased some months before.
She spent hours boxing photographs and keepsakes, quiet and content, alone in the house, the stewing mystery of the letter lowered to a gentle simmer at the back of her mind. There was a warmth about her shoulders, almost the feeling of an embrace, as if her parents stood at her side, encouraging her, praising her. She’d been ambivalent about selling the house for a long while, but she was sure now that it was right and time.
Past midnight, she climbed to the rooftop, half-hoping to see Vincent’s shadow beneath the watch of the unicorn. She missed him and she loved him and they’d lived happily almost a week in both worlds.

Saturday morning light woke her early as it had years ago. She lay in her childhood bed, safe under the soft and sweet-smelling covers. Soon this bed would be moved below, filling a space for now, in wait ...
She dozed, adrift for a while in dreams, then sailed into memory, lustful morning memory ... his face softened in sleep, how beautiful he was. She’d lie on her side, watching him, her only movement her just-opened eyes, but he would wake to stoke her arm or brush the hair from her face. She thrilled at his gentle kisses, slow and tender in the mornings ... and his first word, always, was her name ...
She went for a shower ... a long, calming shower. And then she remembered ...
Smythe.

The rest of the morning tried her patience.
Catherine had put aside an antique scrimshaw walking cane for Father, one with a brass-banded, tooth handle and a turned and twisted whalebone shaft that glowed with a rich patina. She polished it lovingly and cleaned the brass details with paste and a small, soft brush between calls to Smythe’s bookstore that repeatedly went unanswered.
The Mission truck was almost on time, and they took away the boxes of three-piece suits and formal wear, things unnecessary to anyone in the Tunnels, but clothes that would bring decent revenue to the agency. Even her father’s casual wear was too dressy for below, though she had saved the sweaters and scarves and overcoats. And then the antiques appraiser arrived to begin her giddy dance through the rooms.
Tasks completed – the moving company contracted for the next Saturday; the antiques dealer ascended to auction-heaven; bright yellow circles on the furniture she would take away.
Time to head to the Village.

The cab driver was a talker and Catherine was ready to throttle him by the time she arrived at 777. No doubt – she trod a razor’s edge. The stairway at the Abyss would seem a quiet, safe stroll in comparison.
 Smythe’s letter to her father recounted the order he placed for ... something ... which in itself might be discounted as simple coincidence. Except for the one detail she’d so wanted to share with Vincent last night ...
The date her father had placed his order was several days after his death, the same day he’d ... visited ... her in the guest room she’d used, when he’d worn his red, rubber nose for her one last time. When he’d told her he had heard her and that he’d heard Vincent as well. Catherine clutched at her certainties, yet ... there was Kristopher’s oil portrait, and all the pipes and strange chambers of the tunnels ...
And there was Vincent.
Mr. Smythe had some explaining to do. He’d better be in the shop.
She marched to the door with determination and pulled hard on the latch, fully expecting it to be locked as before. It swung open with her force, however, and suddenly she was inside. Ever suspicious, she slunk from aisle to aisle, peered around the stacks … saw no one.
“Hello, Mr. Smythe? Hello!”
She heard a rustling in the back room and the proprietor wandered out, his perpetually innocent absentmindedness already fraying her nerves.
“Oh, it’s you!” he said, searching the room behind her. “Where’s your partner, the tit-willow? I’ve some vintage comic books he might enjoy – Archie and Veronica and Jughead.”
“Mr. Smythe, I need you to look at something.” She smoothed the letter open on the counter in front of him, ignoring his comments, though she thought Joe might like vintage comic books. She tried not to smile.
He deposited the stack of books he carried on the counter and began to polish his glasses, in Catherine’s opinion, taking far too much time to do so.
“Is there a problem?” he asked.

“Just look at this and tell me if you remember the man who placed this order.”

He picked up the letter and made a show of reading very slowly.

“Yes, yes. Well, well. Let me see ... oh, yes. That was quite the challenge to find. But find it we did! How did you come to have this letter, Ms. Chandler? OH!” He looked a bit chagrined as if he’d been caught. “Is Charles Chandler a relative of yours?”

“He is ... was my father. He died.”

“Oh dear, I’m so terribly sorry. Have you come to collect his order, then?”

“Well, yes, but first ... wait! Come back!” Smythe had turned toward the back room and Catherine imagined him exiting the rear door, never to be seen again.

“First, Mr. Smythe, please. Could the date on this order possibly be wrong?”

Smythe took the paper again and made another great show of looking from letter to receipt to envelope and back again. “I can’t possibly remember the date, Ms. Chandler. It could be right; it could be wrong. Why do you ask? The important thing is we have the item. You do want it, don’t you?”

“Do you remember my father?”

“Of course. Tall, I think, quite slim.” He patted his belly. “An example for us all, I’m sure.”

She found him both maddening and oddly endearing. “My father died, several days before the date of this receipt,” she stated, stepping back to watch his reaction.


Mr. Smythe stood quite still, a benign expression on his face, and pondered her words. “Well,” he said, ”the date must be incorrect, then ... because, otherwise ..." A small smile played at the corners of his lips. "I remember your father spent a great deal of time in the stacks that day. He was with someone; he must have been, because I overheard snippets of their conversation.”
“Do you remember what he said? Who was with him?”
“Oh, no, my dear. I never eavesdrop ... or spy. People deserve a certain privacy, you see. I seem to remember he found a book, however ... yes, a first edition ... Christina Rossetti, I believe. Her sonnets.” He began to polish his glasses again.
“How’s Kristopher these days?”
He gave her his trademark look of teasing concern. "Kristopher is dead, my dear. I thought we established that ages ago.”
“Well, I thought, maybe these ... illustrations ... you mentioned here, were Kristopher’s doing.”
“Well, now that is a mystery, isn’t it? I don’t remember for the life of me why I wrote that.”
“I don’t believe that,” she replied, indignant.
“The perils of growing older, I fear. My mind is ... a blank,“ he answered, gazing into the middle distance.
Then he did disappear into the back room and was gone far too long for Catherine’s liking. Not one person came into the shop. How does he stay in business? She could hear him, rummaging and talking to himself, and she kept her ears attuned to anything that sounded like a rear door opening and closing. Finally he appeared, disheveled and a little dusty, but carrying a large box.
“Here it is. Now I must tell you some things first, before we open it. We have just a teeny little problem.”
Catherine eyed the box. “What is it? And what kind of problem do I ... do we have?”
“In due time, my dear. Let me give you some history first. Now your father described this item in great detail to me. Apparently he’d seen one years ago in a bookshop in Edinburgh. He said you were quite taken with it as a little girl and were terribly upset that it was not for sale.
“We contacted all the rare bookshops in that city and eventually found, if not the exact item, then one very close to the original you saw.
“Now I don’t want to alarm you under the circumstances, but this item has a rather morbid name. Though it is often referred to as a book box, it is also called a book casket. It's designed to protect one's most precious treasures. This is a very special one, very beautiful and rare.”
She felt a strange coldness at the description – book casket – and the memories of that sad, eleven-year-old girl traveling with her grieving father flooded back to her. She had wanted so many things on that trip, trying to replace the one thing, the one person, who could not be replaced. Yet she was anxious to see it and wanted Smythe to stop talking and give it to her.
He slowly untied the strings of the box and pulled the lid away to reveal the treasure nestled in layers of tissue paper and wrapped in soft flannel. He lifted the folds of the cloth and at once, Catherine knew it. She recalled her longing for it and the magic it seemed to promise. It was beautiful.
It was shaped like a book, maybe sixteen inches wide and twenty inches long, with a spine and covers, front and back, and with solid sides, making it indeed a box. It was very old and crafted of sterling silver with intricate Celtic designs engraved and gilded with gold on the covers. It closed with an etched brass hasp held fast by a filigreed, heart-shaped padlock set with a garnet. The lock was exactly as she remembered – the stone blood red, dark and infinite. She reached out to touch it, stunned into silence and memory.
“What’s inside?” she whispered.
Ah,” he said. “Therein lies our little problem.”
Catherine looked up, willing him to get on with it. Tell me. Show me. Her mind screamed the words, though she waited patiently, her tapping foot the only sign of her anticipation.
“Go on,” she encouraged. “The problem ...?”
“There is obviously something inside the ... um, box. But we didn’t receive the key for the lock with the shipment and we've been unable to contact the seller again. In no way could we justify prying it open ourselves. So we’ve waited for you ... and here you are. The treasure has found its rightful home, with you. And I am truly sorry about your father, my dear.”
With that, Smythe replaced the lid and retied the strings, all while Catherine watched, mesmerized, skeptical and thrilled at once. And then it came to her ...
The key.


She had the key.



Click HERE  for Chapter 4

6 comments:

Brandy said...

"She had the key." You love the Secret garden, don't you?

That episode had a bit of Faerie about it - just a slight shift to the left, things not QUITE aligned right. You've kept to that spirit, and Mr. Smythe's
"absent-mindedness" fits well.

I'll have to do some antique searching - found very little with general searches for book boxes and books caskets. Do you have one?

Carole W said...

I do love The Secret Garden. You do too, I'll bet.

No, I don't have a book box myself. I didn't find tons about them either, only some photographs of antique ones for sale. Now I can't even remember how I even knew about them. I must have come across a reference to one in some book I was reading at the time.

I have a photograph of one in the reference section for the story and

here's a beautiful one - all gothic and everything:

English Book Box


~ C

Sonia Who? said...

Ch. 3

LOL Poor Mouse, he's so naive.

Another great chapter, love the mystery and magic in it.

Carole W said...

Mouse is a cutie isn't he. Eventually, he'll get the hang of things.

Anonymous said...

I love the progression of your story, the defining of characters is spot on: Joe, Mouse, Mr Smythe, not to mention our favorite two - with the tension of being apart always with us, waiting for their next encounter. Love it. Cathy S

Carole W said...

Cathy, you are so kind! It really means a lot to me that you've been commenting.

Thank you for this encouragement. Getting the different characters right is so important and it's a challenge to give them different voices. I'm glad to know this story worked that way.

The Only Gift is really dear to my heart. When it first posted to Tunnel Tales, right in the middle of it, the site went down. At Chapter 2. I always felt like it suffered for momentum, that readers never finished it when the site came back. I don't know … somehow I feel protective of this story. That's kind of odd sounding, isn't it? Uh oh! :-)

Again, thank you so much for reading. I'm very pleased that you're pleased.

Carole