A fellow requests me to pick up an item for him, so we transact a bit of business, and complications arise. Doesn’t sound like much? Well, suppose I tell you that the obvious complication was death, with the nasty suspicion of something maybe worse. How does that grab you? Interesting, but still kind of fuzzy, I expect. In order for it to make sense, I have to plug in a whole lot of peculiar details.
I run a lucrative racket, low overhead and no advertising save word of mouth, catering to special collectors who seek special stuff. My cards, professionally printed, read “Sterk Fontaine: Unique Antiquities.” They want it, I’ll get it, no questions asked. It’s a hit or miss business, but when it pays, it pays well. My clients tend to be weirdos, occultists and paranormal investigators and crank scientists, all eager to take a peek at what lies behind the veil of blasé normality. The artifacts they crave, at least in their minds, constitute keys that unlock hidden doors into mysterious worlds. They’re prone to forking over big bucks to lay hands on the goods. That’s where I come in.
My buxom blonde secretary Angie keeps all of my records of commercial endeavor in a maze of computer files that only she comprehends. I keep my private notes, of the really bizarre cases, in an old cigar box on the shelf by my desk. This charming tale naps in that cigar box.
So Angie announces, “He’s here,” ahead of the appointed time, and Morton Frenz bulls past into my seedy downtown, just over the wrong side of the tracks office, and he says breathlessly, “Fontaine, let’s get to the nitty-gritty,” and I respond, “Take a seat, pal.”
Short, squat, rumpled, edgy, little eyes and a big mouth summed him up. Right off the bat I thought, “Bush league.” I smiled and said, “Make your pitch.”
Frenz blurted it out in a rush. “Fontaine, I’m onto a great prize. It’ll make me a big man among the Cabalistic Fathers.” Yeah, a second-rate spiritualist outfit. “I’ll knock them dead. They’ll cheer when I harvest the lost secrets of the Esoteric Harmonies. Heard of them?”
I scratched my stubbly chin, musing. “1920s bunch, into trans-plane travel and immortality, whatever. Led by some woman, an old lady, uh—”
“Evans,” he barked, “Sardina Ellifair Evans. She made plenty of noise in those days. Before she died she learned the cryptic vibrating paths into the invisible beyonds. She trod unearthly spheres of wonder, according to acolytes who ventured with her. Anyone armed with her arcane lore could do the same. Unfortunately she never clearly explained the mechanism of her powers. With her passing the society collapsed, all that potential vanished.
“I found out, Fontaine. I pored through the archives, pieced together the clues. I don’t know how she did it, but I know what she did it with. She encompassed the key within an unusual music box. Three contemporary witnesses said so. They described an ornate box, chased with abstruse symbols. Appeared to be porcelain, but wasn’t. Adorned with jewels, priceless in its own right. So I dived into the estate documents. It took some doing, but this much I established: she didn’t bequeath it, and no property proceedings of the past hundred years have mentioned it. Her old house in Sedona still stands. That’s where she died. I’m convinced the music box is there, cunningly concealed.”
Hmm, sounded a bit thin to me. I fired at Frenz the obvious query: “Why don’t you get it yourself?”
His countenance altered in an instant, slyness scuttling crabwise across his face. “Wouldn’t be prudent.” I pressed. “Too many questions, Fontaine.”
I shook my head. “Look, I’m not violating your confidence, and I don’t ask out of idle curiosity. I’ve got to know what I’m up against. Tell me.”
He glanced nervously at his stubby fingers. “I’m a respectable businessman. Breaking and entering isn’t my line. It could get messy for me. I prefer to function through an intermediate. That’s your job, so I’m told.” I sensed more. He wasn’t coming clean. Boy, have I run into that before.
“All right,” I said. “Five thousand dollars up front, cash—that’s nonrefundable—and twenty thousand on delivery. I’ll get on it immediately.”
He stammered between gasps, “That’s a lot of money.”
“Not to me it isn’t.” I shot him my most artful smirk. He had the funds on him; he’d done his homework on me. We clinched the deal, he provided his contact info and some location particulars on the Sedona house, after which Angie unceremoniously scooted him out.
He removed, she slipped in, sat on the corner of my desk, lit a cigarette, tilted her cute face and said, “Sterkie, you sure know how to pick them. Is this bozo for real?”
I grinned. “Frenz talks the talk, not that that proves anything. They all do. He’s five thousand bucks real, possibly more. Babe, I need you to work your magic. This afternoon find out everything you can about a group called the Esoteric Harmonies, a lady named Sardina Ellifair Evans, and her spooky music box. Got it? Yes, I’ll spell it for you. And pack a bag, because tomorrow we’re going for a drive.”
Angie’s my researcher. Besides being a hot dish, she can crack any pile of papers, and she knows all the tricks of computering. Me? I hate machines, except for fast cars. I prefer my sporty coupe, but this next morning, as a matter of practicality, I sat at the wheel of a reliable 4X4, tooling up the highway toward Sedona. Angie, reclining in the passenger seat, dexterously fingered a sheaf of printouts.
She hadn’t divined anything about a music box, but she tracked down everything else. She chirped, “This Miss Evans was the real deal. Never married; too devoted to her weird organization. Born to British parents in India, where she spent her youth. Apparently she derived there an unorthodox education, because when she came to the States as a young woman she quickly made waves in unconventional circles. By middle age she had Esoteric Harmonies up and running.
“Her people swore by her. They operated a private press, putting out a magazine—Soaring Souls—filled with articles about what they called ‘higher level journeys.’ It all reads like science fiction, believe it or not stuff, other dimensions and odd encounters with strange beings. Sardina, they say, had them all beat. That was a formidable woman. There wasn’t much she couldn’t do if she put her mind to it. She got around, faster than normal folks could understand, appearing in far places in Europe and Asia. They styled it ‘stepping in and out’ of the world. And she did claim the secret of immortality, something about planes of existence where time stopped.”
I interjected, “Immortal until she died.”
We were cruising into the fabulous Red Rock Country surrounding Sedona, a region of stark sandstone buttes and cliffs rising out of dense, green scrub forest. Angie nodded. “Yeah, for all her accomplishments and big talk, they concluded she did herself in. Presumed suicide. She’d been moody toward the end, hinting of startling developments, went into her house one evening and that’s the last anyone saw of her. In that wild, lonely territory they never found the body.” She chuckled. “I guess that’s what coyotes and vultures are for.”
Guided by Angie’s directions, we zipped through the outskirts of Sedona, then turned off pavement into an unmarked lane of packed orange soil. We passed a couple of dwellings buried among the encroaching junipers, a third, and a sign that warned “County Maintenance Ends Here.” The road promptly deteriorated, as expected, hence the Jeep. We bounced and jostled and rattled teeth, juddering over protruding stones that would have massacred regular tires and sent standard suspension to the happy hunting ground. Steering wheel tightly gripped, knuckles white, I negotiated a twisting mile of this, up and out of treacherous sandy washes, a mile and a half. It could be I’d done Frenz wrong. He might have realized he wasn’t up to this. A hundred years of neglect will transform the finest thoroughfare into an obstacle course, and a dirt road can almost disappear.
Houses too. I abruptly stopped as it came into view on the right, framed by the impinging green of the forest, highlighted by red stone spires in the background. Angie whistled comically. “Sterkie, is Frenz pulling your leg?”
I growled. Angie giggled and kissed me a peck to take the sting out of the situation. I pulled up and parked by the remains of a picket fence. It did seem like a joke. The Evans house was a wreck, a dusty, tottering wooden shell weather-shorn of paint, centered within a sprawling yard wholly overgrown. Not a large place; it had been a tall two stories, yet narrow in front, extending more to the back as I could see it. Its extreme dilapidation indicated total abandonment, after all these years surely resulting in vandalism, ransacking, theft or destruction of any contents. Anything of apparent value must have been snatched long ago.
“Unless well hidden,” I said aloud. To Angie’s monosyllable I replied, “All right, sweetheart, I’ve got to do the deed, just to say I did. This may not take long. I’ll poke around, if only to flesh out my report. You make yourself comfortable until I get back. I don’t want that sagging roof collapsing on you.”
“Watch your step.” She produced one of her upscale women’s clothing magazines and contentedly settled in. I went on my way.
This was a cool morning, with scattered clouds, and a tentative breeze lightly rustling the vines clinging to corroded limestone pillars that marked the remnants of a gate. I squeezed through into the yard, such as it was, dodged prickly pear and teeming red ant mounds to approach the house. Chancy steps up to the porch, risky footing there, partly broken through, traversable to the door, that and the surrounding boards decorated with foul modern graffiti. The oaken door hung ajar and askew, bearing signs of a long gone knocker. I entered.
As expected. I hate dust, decay, and cobwebs, meaning the Evans house wasn’t my kind of place. A short, dingy hall opened into a small room which, judging by the cobwebby ruins of furniture, might have been a cozy den once upon a time. That time had joined the dinosaurs. Now it was the abode of lizards, beetles and, probably, termites. A strong storm could knock this shack down.
Dust, dust everywhere, thick and grubby, annoying my sinuses. It also substantiated that someone had been here recently. Shoe prints, not degraded by years, tracked throughout. I saw them wherever I went.
I explored the ground floor. A few rooms, all small, one obviously a kitchen, nothing remarkable, no antique prizes lying about, certainly no swank music box. Cellars aren’t popular in those parts, and sure enough, a trap door in the floor of a barren chamber at the rear disclosed only a crawlspace, a horrid haven for black widows. Reaching the upper floor weighed on my mind. A staircase ascended in another hall off the den, but to describe it as rickety didn’t do it justice. The scaling of that creaky contraption threatened a major and harrowing project. I didn’t relish the challenge.
And then I didn’t have to, because something yanked my attention elsewhere. During my wander the intensity of gloom had waxed and waned as clouds sailed across the sun, and the wind had tugged at loose shingles. Now I experienced a moment of deep, dusky darkness, the breeze buffeting with sudden fury. It died away, returning to its accustomed sighing, then something more. Yes, very indistinct, yet more than wind. I halted in place to study with my ears. No doubt, that was music. Angie fiddling with the radio? No, not this quaint, tinkly melody, so aurally vague that I had to assure myself that I heard it. Having conquered my skepticism, I went in search of its cause.
It came from out back, where I hadn’t needed to venture. Picking through clumps of debris, I came to the rear door, the wooden panel still intact, pulled it inward and pushed out through the tatters of the outer screen. Hey, this was different.
The yard behind the house stood in stark, astounding contrast to the front. I beheld an expertly manicured lawn, large and long, oriented lengthwise from the house, properly fenced with painted pickets and further bordered by high hedges. Much of the yard was laid out as a garden, the lush grass interspersed with variegated beds of brightly colored flowers. I hesitated, blinking at the unexpected scene, then strolled into it. Walking among the flower beds, I noticed the blossom colors were arrayed in shapes, some conventional—circles and rectangles—others suggestive of puzzling symbols. By an angle of the fence a pretty pond, partially covered by water lilies, might have explained the source of sustenance for all this flora. Among the hedges songbirds chirped and crooned. I couldn’t get over how remarkable all this was. Someone, to this day, had been going to an awful lot of trouble to maintain this delightful spread.
The wafting music attracted my awareness again. I turned to trace it, received another smack of surprise. The rear of this house had been kept up a hell of a lot better than the side facing the road. It looked more than maintained, so much so that it must comprise the culmination of an expensive restoration. This façade was gorgeous, matching the gardens, fresh and crisp and hued in robin’s egg blue. I didn’t get this at all.
Corner of the eye—flicker of motion—I whirled, tense. Movement way down at the long end, where sculptured shrubs blocked most of the view. Advancing warily, I closed the gap, maneuvering around the serried bushes. There she was, paying me no mind, as if unaware of my presence; by a smaller pond, this an expanded birdbath with a tile bottom, she watering nearby flowers. Mexican birds of paradise these were.
Thumbing through my assortment of strategies, I decided upon the boldest. I cleared my throat. With nonchalant ease she called over her shoulder, “Be right with you, Mr. Fontaine.” She set down the watering can, paused to wipe her hands on her dress before coming. “I was just about to have tea. Would you care to join me?”
“I would like that.” What else to say? She was an old woman, at once not too old yet that facet of her persona veiling an aspect of extreme age. Do you understand that? I guess not. Thin, tall, gray of hair done up, a small pleasant face, finely wrinkled, steeped in wisdom. She exposed pearly teeth when she smiled, which she often did. An old fashioned air, you bet, in every pore, every stitch of her long, elegant dress.
Lord, the screen door was whole, like this entire facing. Stupidly I asked, “In there?”
She replied, “In my parlor. Where else?” She led the way into the house. The interior had been gussied up a smidgeon since I last saw it. Let’s cut to the parlor, what I’d referred to as the den. The classiest, cleverest museum couldn’t have reconstructed that room so accurately. They might get all the details correct, but it would be plainly staged. This was everything it should be, plus credibly lived in. Graceful period furnishings, oil lamps with crystal chimneys glowing softly yellow, walnut bookshelves crowded with olden tomes, a marble mantelpiece over the fireplace bedecked with personal gewgaws, and a coffee table with a latticework spread, the tea things ready. “Sit here, Mr. Fontaine.”
I did, and we shared tea, and these little cookies she called biscuits. We indulged in an amiable chat. Her conversation consisted of trivialities, with which I went along, feigning calm though my brain bubbled and fumed. The unseasonably cool weather, the early return of the red-winged blackbirds, and the honeyed tune. Ah, there was that. The music I mentioned before had persisted, fading in and out of consciousness. Clear enough now, for it emanated from that fancy music box on the mantelpiece. A prize model it was, garish as neon, golden fringe on the edges, the lid—as I could make it out—incorporating a murky gemstone or an impressive facsimile, reminiscent of a staring green eye. Not the ordinary square, the oddly angled sides bore curious characters, all right. I recognized a few, sufficient to cause me disquiet. It didn’t take much at the moment.
I couldn’t take my eyes off that box, except I did, nor did I let on my mounting agitation. I continued yacking about nothing in particular, following her lead, verging on inanity until a stray remark set us off on a more informational channel. “Do you have many visitors out this way?”
“Heavens, no,” she said, while pouring me another cup. Those cups and saucers and teapot were super-ritzy too. The biscuits weren’t sugary enough for my taste. “I seldom entertain. I came here for solitude, Mr. Fontaine, to escape the weight of life’s burdens, which had grown to disagree with me. People expected too much, were driven by greed for the largesse I dispensed. Towards the end they fairly tried my patience. Here I fashioned my own little world; mine, for as long as I desire.”
She paused. “One did come recently. A visitor, I mean. A Mr. Blake. He was sent by a Mr. Frenz, an acquaintance of yours, I believe. I did not care for the company of Mr. Blake. He was a bad man. He wanted something from me, became rather aggressive about it. I hate to speak of this, but his overbearing manner devolved into physical bellicosity.”
My hostess glanced at her well-trimmed nails, her lips primly pursed as if she’d bitten into a lemon. With crafted casualness I probed, “What became of Mr. Blake?”
She gave a fey laugh. “I sent him away, naturally. I could not tolerate such bother.” She seemed flustered. “Do you fathom the import? I’m not telling it appropriately. You should know this. If you would, come with me for another turn in the garden.”
She took me to a spot across from the main pond, curtained by a line of vibrant oleanders. Took me to a new mound of dubious contour, with a young, budding rose bush rising from its midst. She bent down, patting the fertilized soil about the central stem. She nodded suggestively, in a pose of listening. I didn’t fully grasp her subtlety. Stooping, I listened. I perceived the music, barely, and . . . something faint, elusive, masked by the melody. I crouched, cocked my ear. It reached me as from an infinite distance.
I heard screaming.
“Mr. Fontaine, let us finish our tea.” We repaired—surely that’s the apt word—to the parlor, where I forced myself to sit, serenaded by that relentless tune. I hope you haven’t gotten the idea that I’m naïve. I could read the tea leaves, knew the score. The only question of consequence was whether I would be allowed to depart in one piece. I might as well broach the subject hanging between us.
“Miss Evans, I came here for the music box. Would you be willing to give it to me?”
She possessed such a cherubic grin. “Sir, that is my favorite heirloom. I am quite fond of it. I could not bear to part with it.”
I stood briskly. “Fine. I had to ask. Thank you for your hospitality. Now, ma’am, I must be on my way; that is, if you have no objection.”
She rose gracefully. “I have enjoyed it. This way, please.” She showed me to the door. I hesitated as she unhooked the latch. Which world lay beyond, hers or mine? She beamed that lovely smile at me again and said, “Never fear, this will take you where you wish to go.”
Angie looked up brightly from her magazine as I emerged into the weedy wilderness of front yard, scrutinized me up and down when I approached the passenger side window. “Did you find the music box?”
“Did I see you waving at someone?”
I explained later, as best I could. Angie took it in stride. She was used to my warped hijinks. A couple of days after I was ready for Morton Frenz, peremptorily calling him to the office. He didn’t care for my report, nor for my snide insinuations. “You didn’t tell me about Blake. Forgot him, did you? Admit it, you were aware of the danger before you sent your first goon. I hope Blake came cheap. You didn’t hear back from him? Well, you won’t, Frenz, bank on that.
“You didn’t pick a thug this time, otherwise you wouldn’t be hearing this. And you can write off the music box, bub. Blake didn’t get it, I didn’t, nobody ever will, I guarantee it. It’s a dead loss. You can figure out another way to impress your silly friends.”
Frenz blustered and spluttered and raised the roof with his indignation. To hear him carry on, losing the music box wasn’t his chief grievance. “What about my money? I squandered five thousand dollars on your ineptitude, with nothing to show for it. It’s an outrage, sheer robbery. I demand back every penny of it!”
To which I responded, “Sue me.”
BIO: Jeffery Scott Sims is an author devoted to fantastic literature, living in Arizona, which forms the background for many of his stories. His recent publications include a volume of weird tales, Science and Sorcery III; the republication of The Journey of Jacob Bleek; and the short stories “The Mystery of the Egyptian Biscuit,” “The Watcher Within,” “The Forbidden Chapter,” “The Sedona House,” “At the Feet of Poteauje,” and “The Secrets Behind the Canvas.” He maintains a literary website devoted to weird tales at http://simsweird.infinityfreeapp.com/index.html.