The Black Box
By: Stephanie L. Robertson
I felt the delicate gold chain slide between my right thumb and my index finger. It felt cool in my palm. Whether it was really gold or not was inconsequential because the pads on my fingers began to tingle.
The shapeless woman who had been standing near the rows of jewelry had moved over to help another woman with a pale blue vase in a far corner of the stale living room. The estate sale worker was overly helpful, and the two women engaged in a friendly conversation about mid-century milk glass. They were loud and haggling over the price.
I felt the gold chain slide into the pocket of my lightweight raincoat.
I hadn’t intended for it to happen again. I thought I’d dealt with it. I thought that my counselor had helped me to deal with it. It had been six months since my last stint with the law. One more infraction, and there would be stiffer consequences to pay.
But the pleasure of the moment… The ease of which I could steal the necklace… The challenge of not getting caught. It was just too much.
All of those pendants were left unguarded by the woman who was helping the milk glass vase lady. I had heard her colleague, a thin-nosed woman with iron gray hair, tell the woman that she was off for a quick lunch break.
I brushed my hand over a box of shimmering vintage brooches. My heartbeat quickened. “Slippery Fingers,” is what my high school friend had called me, ages ago when I would steal a pack of gum after school.
I felt my slippery fingers grasp a handful of the costume jewelry and slide them into my pocket.
“Excuse me! Just what do you think you’re doing!”
My back stiffened.
I had been so intent on my treasure that I neglected to see the other estate sale staffer return through the kitchen doorway, a lunch bag and soda can in each hand.
But it was an odd thing. Rather than pulling out a phone and tapping out 9-1-1, the woman set her lunch bag down on the counter and whispered, “Come with me!”
I followed the woman up the stairs of the dank Victorian house. At the second-story landing, she pulled out a key and unlocked a bedroom door.
She set her soda can on an old secretary’s desk, regardless of the beaded condensation on the can. She pulled out a sheet of stationery, a pencil, and an envelope. Then she began to write.
“Here!” she said, after sealing the paper in the envelope. She gave me the envelope, but I couldn’t read it because of the foreign characters it was written in. I could, however, read the address: 1156 Darth Way; Bell Buckle, Tennessee.
I had never heard of Bell Buckle, Tennessee.
“You will deliver this to the address written at the top of the page along with that black box setting on the dresser over there. You will deliver it within 12 hours, or face consequences. Do not talk with anyone about the box. Do not open the envelope. Your life could depend on it.”
I pulled the necklace and brooches from my pocket. “Why don’t I just give all of this back to you, and we’ll call it even?”
“Keep it. You’re already in too deep to back out now. When you deliver the box and letter safely, you will be given $5,000 in cash.”
The woman handed me a cell phone. “Use this and call the number taped to the back if you encounter anything…unusual. You will take the back stairway to get out of the house unseen. Remember—do not let anyone know that we’ve talked. Now, go!”
I stared into the woman’s piercing black eyes.
“There’s no way I’m going to cross state lines to transport drugs, lady. I’ll take my chances with a shoplifting charge.”
The woman emitted a laugh devoid of humor. “Oh, you can trust me on this. There are no drugs in the black box.”
“I don’t trust anyone but myself,” I said.
The woman’s eyes snapped. “Fine. You will feel ridiculous when you see what’s inside.”
I shrugged a shoulder and followed the woman over to the black box. She withdrew a rusty key from a pocket of her floral print dress and fitted into the keyhole on the box.
I watched in anticipation as she jimmied the lock but was perplexed when she pulled out a wooden cuckoo clock from layers of protective satin fabric.
“That’s it?” I asked, sorely disappointed. “That’s worth asking a complete stranger to deliver it to the middle of nowhere for 5 grand?”
The woman set the clock back into the box and covered it with the fabric.
“It’s a very special clock,” the woman seemed to defend herself. “My father brought it to my mother from Germany when he returned from the war in 1945. I need it delivered to a clock repair person—someone I personally know and trust. I plan to give it to my granddaughter as a wedding gift this summer.”
“Why don’t you just send it by Registered Mail?” I asked.
“I don’t trust the U.S. Mail,” she replied.
“Yet you trust a kleptomaniac?”
“I do for $5000 on delivery.”
“I need to see the clock again.”
The woman sighed. “Fine.” With this she lifted the fabric away and I reached for the clock.
“Careful!” the woman almost shouted.
I gently lifted the wooden clock from the box. The clock seemed to weigh about 8 to 10 pounds. I brought it up to my nose for a sniff. It had a dusty, wooden smell. I didn’t know much about old clocks, but—and I’m ashamed to admit—I do know what cocaine smelled like from my days spent in jail before I…Well, anyway, I knew the smell.
The woman’s story seemed plausible, although she didn’t strike me as the sentimental type. But what did I have to lose? It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday. I could be back late tonight or I could stop in Huntsville and bunk with my former college roommate who had just bought a cottage in the historic downtown. I had nothing better to do than to wash my jeans for my graduate classes next week, which is why I had been procrastinating at the estate sale this morning. I had been on my way to buy laundry detergent at the dollar store this morning when I saw the estate sale sign. And I certainly didn’t need a police report after I’d only been at my internship for 4 months.
I thought of some of my undergraduate debt that I could pay off with $5000.
“Okay, I’m in,” I said and handed the clock back to the woman.
She lifted her head in assent, busied herself with rearranging the clock in the black box. She closed the lid, locked it with the key, and put the key back into her pocket.
“Here you are,” she said and handed the box to me. “Remember, down the back steps—I’ll show you the way—and have the box delivered by 8:00 tonight. Don’t forget the phone.”
Without another word, the woman led me back out to the hallway and gestured to the back stairwell.
I hurried down the steps and around to the front of the house where my car was parked. It had begun to rain, but people were still pulling to the curb and walking up to the house to seek their treasures at the estate sale.
After tossing a few books and papers on to the floorboard, I lay the black box on the passenger’s seat and hurried to the other side of the car to avoid the rain. For a moment, I caught my breath after dodging raindrops and other shoppers.
Do not talk with anyone about the box. Do not open the envelope, the woman had said.
Your life could depend on it!
“What a bunch of baloney,” I laughed out loud to myself and got into my car. “My life could depend on delivering a clock to some clock repair guy in Tennessee?”
The woman must have been a couple of fries short of a Happy Meal, as my roommate would say. But again, for $5,000 and her not calling the cops, I wouldn’t complain.
I put my key into the ignition and hoped it would start. Something wonky had been going on with my car as of late. I could use 5K to get it repaired and hopefully not have to eat Ramen Noodles until I turned 30.
The engine turned over and I waited a few more seconds before chancing my lights and then my wipers. There were times that all three wouldn’t work at once. Today, they did.
I punched the clockmaker’s address into my map app, double-checking the spelling of the town in Tennessee that I’d never heard of.
I pulled away from the curb, narrowly avoiding a senior citizen pulling in with a large Cadillac. I was off to Bell Buckle, Tennessee.
According to my app, Bell Buckle, Tennessee was 3 ½ miles away at just under 320 miles. Interstate all the way from my starting point, just north of Tuscaloosa. Piece of cake. I dialed up my old roomie’s number and nearly missed the exit ramp. Dropping my phone, I whipped the car onto the ramp, screeching my worn tires and sending rocks flying into the grass. A horn blew from a car behind me.
I heard Gwen’s voice call from the floorboard.
“Gwen!” I shouted. I had no business looking up a number while trying to drive. I knew that. My mom had warned me of that.
“Kate?” Her voice was faint.
“Hey, Gwen. Sorry about that! I dropped my phone. Uh—if you can hear me…I may need a place to bunk down tonight. Can I stay there?”
“I can’t hear you, Kate,” Gwen said. “I’m on a camp-out with friends and am—Losing contact…Hear me?”
Her voice went dead.
I didn’t bother to reach for the phone but tried to focus on merging into traffic. I told you so, said Mom’s voice inside my head, and the voice was true. I thought of when Mom was teaching me to drive her little Lexus when I was fifteen. I had reached for the sound of my cell phone’s ding, and nearly caused a wreck. “I told you so,” Mom had said and never let me drive her car again.
My parents and I haven’t talked to each other in about a year and a half. My counselor thinks that I began shoplifting, not because I needed anything, but to get my parents’ attention. According to my counselor, any attention was better than none at all. At least to my teenage mind. After my teen years, shoplifting had simply become a habit. Something that I did when I was bored or just to let off some steam.
Anyway, enough about that. I had a job to do. I flicked on the radio and searched for a station as the miles went past. I passed through Birmingham and decided to take a bathroom break at a family restaurant to the far north of town.
I pulled into the restaurant chain and parked near the rear of the building. The dinner hour was in full swing, so I had to wait in line for about five minutes. Not particularly considering the time, I browsed through the store after using the rest room. This time, I was mindful of my impulse to steal. I checked my watch and saw that I had been browsing for about ten or fifteen minutes. No time to grab lunch, I paid for a soda and chips on the way out to my beat-up old car—I’d long ago sold the cute sports car that my parents had bought me for college graduation. I had used the money to help finance graduate school, which is one reason my parents and I weren’t on speaking terms. Instead of going into law school and engaging myself to the man of their dreams, I broke off on my own and am studying social work. I want to help people who have impulse-control problems…like myself.
“Hey! What are you doing there?” I interrupted my own morose thoughts when I found myself screaming at a man trying to break his way into my car.
The man was wearing a black hoodie, but what I noticed most was his startling ice, blue eyes. He dropped a coat-hanger that he was working with and sprinted to a pickup with me in pursuit on foot. With a squeal of tires, the maroon dual-cab took off from the restaurant and drove out of sight.
He had managed to open my passenger-side door, which stood ajar. The black box teetered on the front seat before falling to the floor board, along with a detritus of heavy college text books and papers.
I hurried to set the box upright and hoped that its contents hadn’t been disturbed, or worse—broken.
There was no way that I could ensure that the clock was okay because the liquidator at the estate sale hadn’t given me the key. All I could do was hope.
Once again, I started down the interstate. I pushed down on the accelerator. I had already wasted too much time. I was beyond thankful that the guy hadn’t taken the black box. I couldn’t imagine what I would have done if he had.
I took a deep, cleansing breath. It hadn’t happened, so I could relax and just drive.
Dark clouds gathered and the sun was low in the west. My Gran had always said this was the best time of day to drive, when the sun wasn’t glaring in the eyes. She and Pop used to travel all over the United States in their state-of-the-art RV. Must have been nice.
After driving for an hour, I realized I needed to stop for gas. I had tanked up earlier today, before I had gone to the sale, but my car burned fuel like a thirsty goat. I was down to less than a quarter of a tank, and I couldn’t trust the gas gauge.
I pulled over at the next exit that had a gas station.
While I pulled out my debit card, I hummed the last tune I’d heard on the radio. The machine took my card, and I looked up while pulling out the pump nozzle.
A man two pumps over was staring intently at me with his very bright, ice blue eyes.
To be continued when I have a moment to sit down and write the rest…
Thank you Paul at Fellsandlakes on eBay for giving me permission to use the photograph of this intriguing black box.
The Black Box, Copyright May 24, 2017 by Stephanie L. Robertson.