(Fiction) It was a Puzzle Box

halo and skull by shane pierce

The runoff reservoir where “Bobbi Jo” was found was undoubtedly man-made. Its sides sloped at a steady angle and three of its lengths were ruler-straight. The fourth curved evenly around the border of a small neighborhood park. Most of the water from the storm had gone, leaving only a marshy carpet of weeds spotted in puddles, which reflected the sun like oval mirrors. The sky was clear but the air had turned quite a bit cooler than it had been yet that season.

I grabbed my backpack of supplies from the back seat and walked into the park, past a jungle gym, swing set, and metal merry-go-round that rested in a moist sand pit, and stopped on the small open lawn, half of which had been scuffed to dirt by running children. It was early then, and the place was empty. A handful of old trees were dotted about, dropping their leaves in the breeze. A tall chain-link fence kept pedestrians from the reservoir. Along it ran a jogging path. Restrooms were near the street corner. A stretch of yellow caution tape had been wrapped back and forth between the orange barrels that flanked the door to the men’s room, indicating it was out of order, but the tape had since sagged to the ground, which suggested it had been that way for some time. Deep in the bowels of the city, I was sure, a work order had waited months to be taken seriously.

A convergence. That’s what I was looking for. I was told it was sort of like a nexus of ley lines, the natural alignments of the sun, moon, and rivers upon which the ancients built their megaliths, like Stonehenge. The intersections of such lines were said to be imbued with spiritual or magical power—boundaries between here and somewhere else—although the lines I was looking for would be considerably less grand.

You are the one, the old witch doctor had said. You need to find the line of two and the line of three and stand in the circle where they meet.

“Line of two . . .” I repeated to myself.

No sooner had I said it than I noticed the orange barrels standing parallel to one another. Across the street was a small grocery store that looked like it dated to about 1970. In the parking lot, two tall posts marked the opening of the cart return. I stepped sideways until the barrels and posts were roughly aligned. I had to guess because the restroom hut was between them. Then I turned around. Sure enough, an imaginary line running between them almost exactly intersected the posts of the gate in the fence that led to the reservoir.

“Huh.” A line of two.

I looked for a line of three. It took me a minute.

Don’t forget to look up and down, the old man had said. Not everything runs along the ground.

A set of three power lines ran along the park, strung between distant poles. I turned and noticed the merry-go-round behind me, which was rimmed in three metal bars. While the sets of two faced each other, vertical and static, the sets of three were horizontal and moved: the power lines carried a flow of electricity, the merry-go-round spun. It matched.

“Sonuvabitch . . .” I breathed.

I drew an imaginary line that followed the power lines and walked to where that line intersected the line running between the posts. Standing there, I noticed I was inside a set of four trees which made a rough diamond shape around my position.

I removed a tube of navy blue lipstick from my bag. I opened the cap and twisted.

Are you sure this will work? I had asked.

Yes, yes. It won’t work for just anyone. But it should work for you.

Why me?

Because not anyone can pull a boto.

He meant the carrion ghoul.

However you did that is how you will do this.

I looked at the dark blue stick poking up from the plastic case. I don’t wear a lot of makeup. It just never seems worth the effort. I do like painting my face for special occasions, though. Always makes it seem that much more special. Point being, I’m not exactly a stranger to lipstick. However, I can honestly say I had never applied it to my forehead before.

I drew a solid line straight over my eyebrows. I felt ridiculous.

Why the forehead?

You need to make a barrier, like drawing a shade between the world of men and the world of the spirit, which hovers just above our own. Calm your heart. Close your eyes if necessary. That’s usually helpful at first. And listen.

For?

You will know.

I closed my eyes. I took two deep breaths, letting each out slowly through my nose. I let several minutes pass.

“So . . .” I said to no one in particular. “Anyyyyyy . . . spirits?”

I waited a moment. I felt like I was sixteen again, sitting in the car on my first date with Sheri McQueen, having no idea what to say because I was too busy praying she’d let me kiss her.

“Any spirits here?” I repeated. “Any spirits at all?”

I turned a little just to make sure I was facing the right way.

“Anyone feel like talking?” I waited.

Then I added softly “Or am I just talking to myself?”

After five minutes of that, I had enough and moved to Plan B. I took the loaf of bread from my backpack and started squeezing and crushing it in the bag. I reached in and crumbled it between my fingers, making grainy pieces, before tossing them on the ground. It took a minute or two for the first bird to appear—a songbird I didn’t recognize. The first few pigeons came immediately thereafter, as if they had been waiting for someone else to make sure it was safe before bullying them out of the way. They all scattered when a pair of 20-something joggers went trundling by. Both girls turned their heads to me, looking at the line of navy lipstick on my forehead. I just waved at them like it was no big deal.

The pigeons returned almost immediately. In a few minutes, I had waddlers all around. They chased away the smaller birds and occasionally squabbled with each other, although none of them would get close to me—except to dart for a stray crumb.

“So,” I said awkwardly, “any of you guys see anything weird in the last couple weeks?”

I threw more bread. Pigeons hunted and pecked and squabbled and didn’t seem to care about me one way or another.

I tossed more crumbs.

“A woman was killed,” I went on. “Someone dumped her body in the channel somewhere around here. Ring any bells?”

I tossed more.

“Lady, you must be dumb or sumptin, tryin to talk to a buncha pigeons.”

I looked around for the source of the voice.

“Everybody knows pigeons are just about the dumbest animals this side ’a dogs.”

In the crook of a nearby tree, a burly cat eyed me curiously. I opened my mouth to reply, but stopped short of actually saying anything. I’d never spoken to an animal before.

“You want directions,” he said, “you gotta talk to a cardinal. Bastages will get you anywhere you want to go, belieb me.”

“Cardinals?”

He leapt to the weeds and licked a paw like it was tender. The pigeons scattered, leaving us alone in the grassy convergence.

“That’s right. And if you’re lookin for advice, you gotta talk to an owl. Owls got good advice, ’specially on catching mice’n shit like that. But if you’re looking for somethin lost, you gotta find a raven. Not a crow, unnerstand? Crows ain’t good for nuthin. Fuckers’ll rob you blind, too.”

“And if I’m looking for a person?”

“Jesus, you really are dumb. A hawk, whaddya think?”

“A hawk?”

“Best eyesight around.”

I was aware I was staring, but he was so utterly odd—a large orange-and-white with tufts of fur growing from the tips of his ears, like a lynx. His pronounced, almost bulbous lips sprouted wiry whiskers, a few of which were bent. He was noticeably bulky for a cat—not especially tall, but husky and plump. A rival had clearly tried to scratch out an eye at one point. There was no dramatic scar, just some pinkish flesh poking through to one side where his fur no longer grew. And of course there was that bobtail. At least, I think it was a bobtail. Given the rest of him, it was possible he had simply lost the rest.

But it was his eyes that got you. They were different colors. One was blue, the other a bright orange.

“I don’t suppose you know any ravens, then.”

“As it happens, I do. I know all kindsa animals. But don’t worry about it. I think I got what yer lookin for.

“I appreciate the help, Mister . . .”

“Graskul. No Mister. And you’re quite the comedian. It’s not that easy, lady. Help doesn’t come for free, not in this town. You want the goods? You gotta pay, same as everybody.”

“You want money?”

“Who said anything about money? Do I look like I wanna open a savings account? Naw. I want three drops of blood.”

“Three?” I paused. “That’s a strange request for a cat.”

“Who said I was a cat? Look, you asked for help . . .” He glanced around. “And I don’t see anybody else jumping up to be a Samaritan. You want it or not?”

“For three drops of blood?”

“That’s right. Best deal you’ll get all month.”

I thought for a moment. “Alright,” I said. “You got a deal.”

He hacked some mucus into a fat paw and I spit into my hand and we shook on it.

“That’s binding,” he said with no small measure of glee. “You know what happens if you break it.”

“Only if what you’re gonna show me is worth anything.”

“Oh, it is. Don’t you worry. In fact, I hope you got some adult diapers in that ugly-ass backpack cuz you’re gonna shit yourself when you see it.”

I watched him trundle briskly toward the cracked and uneven sidewalk. Tall weeds grew from it where the concrete had cracked and exposed the earth underneath. The weeds in turn caught bits of trash and paper. Unlike most cats, who would’ve pranced deftly around such obstacles as they trotted along, my guide charged right through. There was a slight hobble to his walk, I noticed, as if one of his back legs was shorter than the other. A snack-sized chip bag had adhered itself to his back foot, and he shook it off in a kind of spasm.

“I thought witches’ cats were black,” I said after two blocks.

“That’s racist.”

“Is it? Sorry. I didn’t know cats had races.”

“Why wouldn’t we?”

“I thought they were called breeds.”

We crossed over the concrete drainage causeway and passed into a residential neighborhood. The houses were small by contemporary standards, with half-height link fences separating the yards. I guessed it dated to the ’50s.

My plump guide was starting to breathe heavy. “My granpa always used to say never judge a cat by the length of his tail, but you’re a real piece of work.”

“I thought you weren’t a cat.”

“Who said I wasn’t?”

We turned right and then left as we wove deeper into the neighborhood. I turned back. We were getting farther from the causeway.

“So what’s wrong with me?”

“You got lipstick on your forehead. You know that, right?”

“Shit.” I stopped and got napkins from my bag. I used my own saliva to wet them. It was all I had.

Graskul watched my rub vigorously. “What was that supposed to be, exactly?”

“To draw a shade between the world of—”

He started laughing hysterically. He plopped back, legs up, and twitched. “Oh my God,” he said between wheezes, “that’s rich. Somebody actually got you with that old gag!”

The witch doctor.

I sighed and kept rubbing as Graskul wiped his eyes with the back of a paw.

“How much farther is it?” I asked.

“Calm down. It’s right there on the corner. That’s what you want, right there.”

It was a strange house, different than the others. It had a second floor, for one, but of an old style where the upper was both smaller and shorter than the lower. It was also set apart from its neighbors on a sort of narrow, cone-shaped lot in a gap at the end of a cul-de-sac, as if it predated the rest of the development and the owner had refused to sell. The lot rested at the intersection of the curbless street and a gravel side-drive, probably used for trash collection, that cut through the rear of the neighborhood. The house’s whitewashed wood siding was cracked and uneven in places and covered in graffiti at the bottom. The windows were boarded from the inside. Shapes had been cut out of the gabling. Black wires ran from the suspension poles on the street to the crown of the roof and disappeared. The concrete foundation poked up a couple feet above ground. Several slat windows were set into it, suggesting there was a basement, but they had been painted black.

“That place is oozing bad mojo,” Graskul said, “know what I mean?”

A siren squealed to life a few blocks over. We were not in the best of neighborhoods. I crossed the street and stepped over the half-height link fence. The uncut lawn was mostly weeds that stood over my ankles. On two sides, the narrow lot was bordered by rows of tall cone cedars. They stood shoulder to shoulder like guardian statues. Graskul plopped underneath one, panting. But I noted he was outside the short fence, like he couldn’t come in—or didn’t dare to.

“Tired?” I asked.

“Man, I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time.”

“Is that why?”

“A crack about my weight, huh? Look at the length of your legs, genius, then look at mine. It’s like you’re fucking wearing stilts or something.”

I knelt by a whitewashed wall. The thing about graffiti is that it’s made to be cryptic. Gang signs are explicitly not meant for the general public, but you better believe they have meaning. I’m not sure anyone passing on the street would’ve noticed anything unusual about undecipherable marks on the house, especially since they were brightly painted in the typical street style. But I did.

“There are runes in here,” I said, tracing blue paint with my finger. They circled the house. Like a barrier.

I walked to the front. I stopped.

“Wait a minute . . .”

I walked around the side, then back the other way.

“There’s no door!” I called.

“See?” Graskul peered through the fence like a prisoner. “Was I right or was I right? I told you this was what you wanted. It’s like the house from hell or sumtin.” He looked at it and shuddered.

“Who builds a house with no door?” I breathed.

“Beats me, but here it is. Now pay up.”

“Hold up, captain. House with no door does me no good.”

“That’s your problem. I said I’d take you to it and I did. But, ya know . . .” He looked away sheepishly, running his paws over each other.

I walked around the corner again so I could see him better. “What?”

“I’d be open to amending our deal. To be a pal.”

Amending?

“Double or nothing says you can’t find your way in.”

“You hustling me, fat cat?”

“It’s up to you,” he said nonchalantly through the fence. “You wanna pay the three and be done, it’s no fur off my tail.”

“Okay. You’re on. Double or nothing. And thanks for the clue.”

“Pfftttt! Whatever, lady. I didn’t give you no clues.”

“Yes, you did. You confirmed there’s a way in. That means it’s not just some trick.”

“Whatever!” he growled. “You don’t even know what that thing is.”

I didn’t. Not until right then. “Jesus . . .” I stepped back and looked at the house from the tiny back yard. “It’s a puzzle box, isn’t it?”

Graskul’s upturned nose told me I was right.

Whether it operated by mechanism or magic, I couldn’t say. I figured probably a mix of the two. Now I just had to get it open.

The graffiti ran along the lower half. It was uneven but mostly confined to the base of the siding—except for one spot where it ran over the bottom part of an open shutter. I walked over and closed it. Sure enough, there was paint underneath as well. By closing the shutter, I altered one of the patterns.

“Lucky guess,” Graskul called. “And you still got a long way to go.”

I stepped back to see if anything had changed. “Was that stepladder always there?”

It was folded, resting on the ground under the trees at the back. I took it out and set it up. No way it would reach the roof, but it certainly expanded my reach—although not necessarily for the better. I spent most of an hour moving it around the lawn, tapping wood, pulling on anything in arm’s reach. No luck.

Graskul just watched from the far side of the link fence. “We gotta put some kinda time limit on this, lady. I ain’t got all day.”

The house wasn’t a simple cube. There were two sections, one larger than the other, that overlapped at their corners. But the roof had three sections, suggesting something folded out alleyside. I circled the house. It took me a few passes before I noticed the vent. It was near the ground. I saw the ladder and immediately assumed the next clue would be high. I tried to pull it but it wouldn’t move. But it did turn 90 degrees, and once again I started the laborious process of climbing up, patting and pulling, climbing down, and moving the ladder all the way around the house. Eventually, I noticed a plank of siding near the gutter that looked a little more worn than those around it. I had to push hard, but it slid to the left. Only once I was standing on the lawn again, I couldn’t see where anything had changed: not on the house, not on the lawn, not—

Wait.

The gate of the half-height fence was open. I looked at Graskul, who glanced away innocently. He must have opened it at some point when I was engaged in my work. I walked over and shut it. I slid the siding back out. I turned the vent. I slid the siding back in. And on and on in every combination.

I collapsed on the grass. I was beat. It was already afternoon. I’d been at it the better part of a day.

“Give up?” he called. He was on his back, napping in the shade.

I looked at the grass, panting. “Fuck.

“Hahaha.” Graskul clutched his ample belly and laughed. “I knew it. I knew you were just a dumb broad.”

“Yeah, yeah, just spill it already.”

“You were so close. So close. You didn’t even know. Cuz you’re a dumb human. The gate’s gotta be closed before you turn the vent. Then slide the wood.”

“I did all that.”

“But you didn’t open the shutter again.”

“Shit . . .”

Closing the shutter broke the seal. Sort of like turning the mechanism off. I needed to turn it back on again. I walked over and slammed it against the house, which shuddered and turned. The whole thing opened, and for a moment I thought I would be crushed between the two sections, which both swung out toward me. But they stopped, leaving me in a perfect 90-degree nook. I touched the walls. Solid. Like the house had always been that way.

Graskul had a single claw raised. “Ready when you are, Officer.”

“Alright, alright.” I nodded. I opened my bag, pulled out a pack of ground meat, and tossed it to him.

Bring food for many kinds of animals, the old witch doctor had told me. You don’t know who you will meet.

I also removed a bottle of water and took a drink.

“What the hell is this?” The package landed upside down and Graskul poked at the foam tray. “What the hell is this?” he yelled. “That ain’t what we said. We said—”

“Six drops of blood.”

“I said no tricks!” he boomed. “We had a deal!”

“No tricks. There’s more than six in there. Shit, you got a bargain.”

“No, but . . . You said . . . You rat fink!” he squealed. “I’m gonna—”

“What?” I asked, adjusting my jacket so he could see my weapon in its holster. “You’re gonna do what? You think you’re the first mischievous spirit I’ve tussled with? Get over yourself.” I started rolling up my sleeves. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got work to do.”

“Oh, no. I ain’t goin nowhere. I’m gonna watch this. Better than dinner and a movie.”

He sat on his butt with the package of meat between his legs. He sliced through the plastic with the single claw and took out a morsel.

“Suit yourself.”

A hutchlike open garage had appeared alleyside, near the front door. A blue sedan was parked inside. I took out my phone and gave the plate number to dispatch. I had to wait a minute, but it was worth it. The response couldn’t have been more perfect. It was registered to one Amber Massey. Caucasian female. Age 32. Same gender, same ethnicity, and same age as Bobbi Jo. Seemed like an awfully big coincidence. No one had reported her missing—I’d already checked missing person reports for a hundred miles in every direction and hadn’t found a match—but then, no wedding ring was found on the body. I’d double-check marriage records when I got back to the office, just to be sure, but fifty bucks said Amber was single and lived alone. Family, if any, were probably not local, so not hearing from her for a bit wouldn’t necessarily raise any alarms.

A small stoop led to a storm screen that covered the front door. The wood was caked in clear gunk. The door had been dripping mucus at one point but had since dried, which meant that whatever entity had lived there was ectoplasmic, but that it was gone now. Better to play it safe and get a warrant, just in case whatever was inside would have to be admissible later.

I turned to gloat, but Graskul was gone.


Selection from FEAST OF SHADOWS (part one), releasing this Friday!

This chapter was inspired by a real puzzle box, which I purchased last winter in Hakone, Japan. My parents bought it off me to give as a birthday present. I had almost forgotten about it.

This box requires 20 moves to open. There were a couple larger ones that required 36, 50, and 72 moves, but they ran from $120 to $250.

The craftsmanship is quite spectacular. The locking notches are all at least a centimeter thick, which suggests they shouldn’t ever wear down to the point of uselessness, even if the grooves get less snug over time. It’s a nice keepsake.