The box is slightly larger than a Gladstone Bag.
Made from Cedar with a beautiful patina that only develops with age.
The handle is solid, polished brass and the shape of the box, the weight of the timber and its contents makes it difficult to carry, especially for a man with a war wound.
The custodian of the keys would have stood about six foot two inches tall if it had not been for his damaged leg. He carried a cane and relied on it heavily. It made me uncomfortable to watch him walk, but I never heard him complain. There was a bravery medal to go with the damaged leg, but I did not hear that from him. He defined himself by his role in life not by his disability.
He was still reasonably young and his years on this earth had given him a patina as well. His pain did not show on his face nor in his eyes, which was amazing to me because almost everyone I meet shows me their pain — I haven’t decided if this is a gift or a curse.
I’m constantly invited to parties, but I don’t always accept.
I met Roman at a party I deigned to attend. I had heard about him of course, but until then I had not had the pleasure of being introduced.
Being a successful author, in a city that still valued the Arts, meant that my one successful book carried me through life on a gentle stream of admiration and envy.
To be truly successful a book must have a compelling character or a unique plot; I call these things ‘the beauty,’ and without ‘the beauty’ there is little chance of success. I stumbled on it by chance with my first book, and I have spent many years since looking for it again.
“Your book changed they way I look at the world. When will you write another?”
The words vary slightly, but the question is always the same and so is my answer.
“When I find something beautiful to write about.”
I love to dance, but more than that, I like to watch. The music was loud and infectious. I asked a beautiful woman if she would like to dance and she smiled and moved towards me. She was mature and voluptuous. Her red dress touched her lightly in all the right places. I wasn’t sure, but I had the suspicion that she was not wearing underwear. Her manner said that this was more likely to have been her choice than a nod to fashion. She had dark medium length hair and a minimum of jewellery, but her earrings were diamond studs. Argyle diamonds, with that distinctive pink gold hue. Her breasts were a perfect size, and her hips were wide. It was a while before I got a glimpse of her derriére, but the wait was worth it.
We danced to the hypnotic beat until my thirst got the better of me. We had not spoken, and it had nothing to do with the loud music.
I leant in, at the risk of getting a fat lip from flying arms, and said, “Are you thirsty?”
“Yes, I am. What do you suggest?” she said.
“Bubbly, or something more exotic?”
“Bubbly is good,” she said with the hint of a smile.
I took her hand and led her through the swirling crowd. There were a few near misses, but we made it out with only a few hairs out of place.
We were perspiring, and I had long since discarded my suit coat. I wasn’t wearing a tie. As far as I’m concerned, an expensive suit is formal enough for these occasions.
I’m always amazed that women can exert themselves and still look well presented.
The Champagne was chilled and went down like lemonade, which is always dangerous. Mine disappeared within moments, but hers was still in her hand, half full. A lady who drinks slowly is a delightful enigma.
“Do you attend many of these parties?” she said. Her voice matched her beauty which does not always happen.
“It’s what I do. My day starts in the mid-afternoon and ends as the sun comes up. There is usually an important party going on somewhere in this city. Beautiful surroundings like this garden, beautiful people and occasionally, the beautiful people are also talented.”
“And are you one of the people who make the party important?”
Her question took me mildly by surprise, and I answered it honestly.
“Yes. It has been that way for many years. My presence adds currency to the efforts of the host or hostess.” I didn’t mention that at one time my presence, or lack of it, could make or break a party.
“Is that why you come — for the fame?”
“No. I come to these gatherings because I can. Some of these people are my friends, and many of them are artists. Beauty can follow an artist, but you have to look very carefully. It occurs to me that I haven’t seen you before because I’m sure I would remember.” It was a statement, but she knew that it required an answer.
“I came with the Richardson’s. I’m visiting for a little while.”
“Giving your heart time to heal.”
“How did you know that. Has someone said something?”
“No. No one said a word. I can see it in your eyes.”
“Can you always read people like that. Was your mother a Gypsy perhaps?”
“My mother was a factory worker who loved to read. I suspect that she could read people as well, but she never told me about it. I inherited this from somewhere so let’s say that my mother bequeathed it to me. That and a love of all things Italian.”
“Would your mother approve of me?”
“I don’t know, but I suspect that she would give you a chance to prove yourself and in my mother’s world, that was a lot.”
It seemed like the right thing to ask at that moment so I said, “Would you like to see something beautiful?”
She didn’t answer, but she did take my hand and follow me to the other side the courtyard. The weather was warm, and there was a sweet smell in the air from the flowers in this well-kept garden.
I’d noticed Roman standing in front of a small pond with a soothing fountain. He was staring into the water while leaning on his ornate cane. Standing there, he looked like any other well-dressed man at a party, but it seemed unusual for such an attractive man to be standing alone.
The garden was almost as old as the house and together they had seen many decades come and go. The current owners were only in residence for a few months of the year, and they threw lavish parties in a desperate attempt to disguise where their money originated. I rarely attended, but I had nothing better to do on this Tuesday night. The ones who wanted to be noticed and wanted to break into society held their parties early in the week so as not to clash with the established hoy-poly.
Roman heard us coming, and he smiled when he saw me.
I stood silently next to him for a while before I asked, “Do you have your case with you, Roman?”
“I always have it with me, Christian,” he said in an even tone.
“Roman this is — .”
“Katherine,” said Katherine. My brief time with this beautiful woman had disarmed my usual courtesy. I’m good with names, but on this occasion, they seemed unnecessary. She had not asked me for my name either which only deepened her mystery.
“Katherine, this is Roman. He is the keeper of the keys.”
We followed Roman to his car. He drove a classic Mercedes SL 600 in original condition. Fantastic car and it suited its owner perfectly.
We drove a short distance and stopped outside a mansion on Alfred Cresent, opposite the Edinborough Gardens.
When Roman opened the hydraulically operated boot, we could see the cedar case held in place by leather straps. I offered to help remove the case from the boot.
“Thank you, but no. The box is armed. If I remove the straps in the wrong order, a version of Hell will descend on us.” He didn’t sound like he was kidding, so we took a step back.
The removal of the case was successful, but a part of me wondered what might happen to the luckless individual who steals Roman’s car and quizzically opens the boot.
“There are three houses here, so we will take the box with us,” said Roman.
It was a painful sight to see him struggle up the small flight of stone steps to the front door of number 15, but I knew better than to offer my help.
Roman lay the box down on the doorstep and carefully inserted a small brass key. As the lid came open, it revealed a tray of gold keys set into velvet. There was a sense that there were other trays beneath this one, but for now, he selected an old Victorian shaped key from the box and proceeded to open the heavy front door. The door was solid timber of a great thickness and had an ornate stained glass sidelight which was in need of repair. The door swung open on century old hinges, and we stepped into a wonderland of paintings, furniture and glassware. The floor in the entrance hall was tessellated and the ceilings in this part of the house were more than twenty feet high. We wandered from room to room and let the majesty soak into our souls.
We were silent and went our separate ways, occasional crossing each other’s path.
I had accompanied Roman many times before, and each time we entered a new wondrous residence I felt as I did as a child. Slightly excited, somewhat concerned about being discovered, but above all, free.
This house was famous for its collection of paintings while others were famous for rugs and furniture. One house has more stained glass than a small cathedral. All the glass work was designed for the house and took more than a decade to complete. The original owner was long since dead, and history had forgotten how he made his fortune. Now all that was left was the result of the skill of the artisan.
We visited two other houses in this semicircular street. They all faced the park, and some were in better condition than others.
As light began to fill the sky, we rode with Roman in his Mercedes back to the party.
“Why do people let you have the keys to their houses?” Katherine asked.
Roman didn’t answer immediately, and in the silence, I could sense my companion’s need for sleep.
“Because I’m trustworthy,” was Roman’s reply.
Katherine’s head leant on my shoulder as she drifted in and out of sleep.
The party was over by the time we arrived back. Katherine found the Richardsons, and I kissed her goodbye.
Roman had gone home by the time I had completed this ritual, so I started the best part of my day; the long walk home during first light.
Those awake at that hour are either hard workers beginning their day or those who are sufficiently lucky to be ending theirs.
The streets are quiet, and the neon still casts a glow.
I stroll, not wanting the morning to end. I walk past men clearing rubbish bins and sleepy young people wondering where they left their phone.
I walk down by the river looking for swans, before cutting through the Botanic Gardens, and I’m home again.
As I approach our 1930’s elevator, I see the man who lives in the apartment next to mine. We ride the elevator to the fourth floor, I remark on the quality of his suit, but he gazes moodily at me and does not reply. We walk to our apartment doors, and he punches in the sixteen digit code next to his and places his thumb on the scanner.
My door opens with a single key — we have different expectations of the world, and much later I will find out why.
My secretive neighbour is Christopher Skate. I had been living next to the man who disappeared with one point five billion dollars of other people’s money. As the Federal police dragged him out of his apartment he spoke to me for the first time in the decade we had lived next to each other, and he had been in hiding.
“I get my suits made by Anthony Vincent Barca, the finest tailor in the country. I have him flown in just to do my measurements. While you are entertaining your artist friends, I have been keeping this country running. Do you see how they treat those who keep this country running!”
That was yet to come, and for now, I entered my apartment and found my housekeeper hard at work in the kitchen.
“Do you want eggs, Mr Chris?”
“No, Maria. What I want is some sleep. Can you wake me at 2:30 please.”
“You have to eat something, Mr Chris. Are you going out again tonight?”
“Of course, I am Maria. It’s Wednesday.”
The blue dress I sent her does not seem to have unsettled her at all.
Probably because I didn’t tell her about the note that was sewn into the hem.
It wouldn’t matter if I told her what it said; she’s not superstitious.
If it comes down to it, nothing much unsettles her.
Growing up, she was my big sister and I was a bit of an annoyance.
Sister can be like that.
There were good moments but mostly I just got in the way.
Now that we are ‘all grown up’ we don’t annoy each other quite so much.
We have a few things in common.
We attract men.
It must be a family thing.
It seems that the more we ignore them, the more they flock around.
My sister has been married twice and she would not be caught dead in a Thrift Shop. Her second husband has slightly more money than God and he does not care how much of it she spends on herself. He made his money running McDonalds franchises.
My sister and I meet once a week and always at this cafe.
This sometimes presents a bit of a challenge because the whole area tends to shut down during the Winter. My big sister pays the proprietor an exorbitant amount of money to open up; just for us.
Today presented no such problem.
The weather is fine and warm and there are a couple of fellas hanging around outside, waiting for us to finish our drinks.
They wanted to join us but my sister made them wait outside.
I can’t believe they did it. If it was me, there would be no way I would wait around like a puppy dog; not for a man. But, that’s me.
It’s been my experience that most people’s family are a nightmare, even the ones that appear to function. The main problem?…… family members know how to push your buttons. They have seen you at your worst, there is no mystery and nowhere to hide. Bad hair day? Forget it. They have seen it all. The world may have bought your facade but your family still think you are the looser that they remember when you were growing up.
Most murders, manslaughters, assaults, and Chinese Burns occur inside families.
I do love this cafe.
The decor is suitable and the view is beautiful.
When we were children we would stay in this same little seaside town.
Our father chose to work every second weekend and save what he earned, just so that we could have two weeks by the sea.
Those two weeks were magical.
No school, very few chores, and the allure of the beach, sun, sand and boys.
When we were young the boys were good for games and when we got older they were were good for other things. Things that included moonlight walks [when we were able to sneak out without being caught], kissing in the Tea Tree bushes on the foreshore, and someone to write naive love letters to until the next summer.
Boys smelt funny. Not unpleasant, just different. They had rough hands and seemed to lose the power of speech when things got romantic.
Unlike my twice married sister, I’ve never married.
There’s plenty of time, and just for now, I’m happy living alone.
I wonder how long it will be before those fellas run out of patience?
This story is now part of SLIGHTLY SPOOKY STORIES.
I know — it’s been done a thousand times, and I know you are getting ready to turn away but wait.
Just give me a couple of minutes to explain.
This isn’t just another half-baked science fiction story, this really happened, and it happened to me.
To start with, there is a reason why there are so many stories going around about shrinking people, and there have even been a few movies on the subject — Rachel Welch was in one if I remember rightly. People are fascinated by the idea of really tiny people.
Sorry, I got a little sidetracked there — back to my story.
I was just another poorly paid research scientist working for one of those faceless, almost nameless U.S. corporations. They set up labs here in the 1950s when there was a considerable disparity between the value of our dollar and theirs — in other words, we were cheaper.
All that changed a few years back when the then President of the US, George W Bush did what no other President had done in the past — he didn’t defend the US dollar when it came under attack — he let it slide. He saw it as a quick fix for an economy in trouble — a cheap devaluation. Consequently, our dollar rose sharply in value.
Which is vaguely interesting, I guess, except that now our ageing laboratory and research complex is bleeding money — we aren’t cheap anymore.
The bosses told us point-blank —— “come up with something spectacular or face closure.”
I can’t afford to be out of a job, even a crummy job like this one is better than no job at all.
There is nothing like a little Armageddon-encouragement to get the juices flowing.
They wanted spectacular — I’ll give it to them.
I’d had the formulae worked out for some time, but I’d shelved the project partly because I didn’t want to be laughed at and partly because of the impracticality of human testing.
If it came down to it, I was, and still am, opposed to animal testing. I once sent an anonymous letter to the head of our complex, suggesting that I would find a way to turn him inside out if we ever resorted to that sordid business. He must have thought that I sounded crazy enough to do it because the idea stopped appearing on agenda sheets.
As I said, I was pretty sure that the formulae would work, so I advertised for test subjects. To my amazement the top brass let me. I guess they wanted to keep their lousy jobs as well.
I placed the ads and thought that would be the end of it — but no. We got a whole bunch of replies. At first, I thought they might be cranks, but when we arranged interviews, they all turned up with one exception, and even he rang in and apologised.
We ended up with a canteen full of prospective test subjects and, thanks to a microphone and portable Amp’ from a musician in Accounts, I addressed the assembled multitude.
“Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. We have gathered you here today to say that the murderer is in this room.”
Well, I thought it was funny, but all I got was blank stares.
“Sorry about that, just a bit of scientist humour.”
Still no smiles.
“We’ve got a right bunch here”, I whispered to my colleague, but he looked at me blankly as well. He later told me that he was trying to work out the joke.
I need a holiday.
“Before we go any further, I feel that I should make it quite clear that what you are signing up for is incredibly dangerous and will most likely result in your death. If you sign up, you are signing away the right for your relatives to sue us for your death, so all you will get is the $50 a day and a sandwich from the canteen, most likely ham and cheese, but there is always the possibility of ham and tomato.”
Dead silence. I even thought I heard a cricket.
“I said you could, and probably will die from the effects of these tests.”
A bloke up the back put his hand up and asked, “Exactly how many sandwiches do we get and are we paid at the end of the day, in cash, assuming we survive.”
A chorus of voices reiterated this bloke’s questions and added a few extras like, “Is a drink included with the sandwiches?” and, “Do we get a T-Shirt with I survived the mad-scientists’ experiments, assuming we do survive.”
This question got a lot of support, so I said, “Yes”. And they said, “Yes, to which bits?” To which I said, “Yes to all of it.”
What did I care?
Most of them were probably not going to survive, and the rest of them were going to be very tiny indeed. I could hand paint them if necessary. The whole thing was insane, and now the insanity had been lifted to a whole new level.
I could have been a doctor or a dentist like my mother wanted, but no, I had to ‘follow my dream’ and become a research scientist.
I’m going to shrink the buggery out of these people and save all our jobs.
Fast forward a couple of months and what should have been a celebration turns into a wake.
We successfully shrunk a whole bunch of people, and we were particularly successful with the women.
We were about to market the idea to a company that supplies secretaries all over the world when a bunch of five-star-US generals turned up. They told us that because the parent company was incorporated in the US, they were confiscating our research under the provisions of the Patriot Act.
So, we are out of a job, and the Yanks get to shrink anyone they like.
Bloody unfair if you ask me, but they did say that they would keep the canteen open while they packed up all our research and this means that we can eat all the sandwiches we want — for the rest of the week.
I have no idea what they are going to do with all the leftover ‘tiny little people’ that we had collected, and frankly, I don’t care.
I don’t work here anymore.
Oh, and by the way, no animals were hurt during the telling of this story, and no one got turned inside out, but a lot of sandwiches didn’t make it.