Fly By Night
By James Hold
[Copyright 2017 James Roy Hold
This ebook is the copyrighted property of the author and may not be reproduced, copied and distributed for commercial or non-commercial purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own copy at Shakespir.com where they can discover more work by this author. Thank you for your support.
People say it is bad luck for a black cat to cross your path.
But suppose it’s a Cat of Many Colors? What then?
FLY BY NIGHT
“Change my life again” —— Rush
“But who ever sees Wisdom until she is flying away?” —— H Rider Haggard
The heavy stone lid did not weigh a ton. All the same it took three men to lift it. Even then it was with great difficulty.
“Quick,” Mr Fax barked to his nephew once they succeeded in raising it enough to allow access. “Fetch that beam and prop it open.”
Leaving the other two to hold the lid, Fax’s nephew snatched a three-foot-long piece of creosote timber from the floor and wedged it into place, the base resting precariously on the rim of the stone coffin containing his uncle’s many treasures.
The beam, cut from a railroad crosstie, groaned under the weight as the men let go of the lid, allowing it to rest on the upper end of the beam.
“That tie won’t least much longer,” the third man told Mr Fax, noting a stress crack running the length of the wood. “It’s likely to give way any day now.”
“Just so it holds tonight.”
Fax removed his glasses and mopped the sweat from his bald head with a stained handkerchief.
“After that it won’t matter. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to have a replacement, just in case.”
The third man, Mazurki by name, and Fax’s beefy handyman, nodded. “I know a spot by the tracks where they have some extras stacked up for emergencies. I’ll drive out there now and cut off a piece. Unless you need me for anything else,” he added.
“No, no,” Fax dismissed him. “Mullaney and I can handle things here.”
Mullaney was the nephew, an innocuous, somewhat bumbling young man who, like his uncle, also sported thick glasses.
“Do you really think tonight will be the last time?” he asked.
“The last time here anyway,” Fax assured him. “After we pull off tonight’s transaction we can retire in luxury for the rest of our lives.”
Tonight’s transaction was to be the final nail in a long string of scams Fax had pulled off, selling fake Egyptian relics to rich, eager, and gullible buyers who patronized the black market for their private collections. The large stone coffin was where Fax stored his fakes. It was also where he stashed the cash from his ill-gotten ventures. Neither Mullaney nor Mazurki were aware of this however. Nor did they know that Fax had no intention of sharing his loot with them. Once this deal was concluded he planned on absconding with everything, leaving the other two bupkis.
“Gee, Uncle Phil,” Mullaney began, only to have Fax reach out with both hands, palming the back of the boy’s head while clamping the other one over his mouth. The hands, striking simultaneously, produced a loud PLOP!
“How many times do I have to tell you, kid, my name’s not Phil Silversteen any more. It’s Fax. MISTER Fax. Got it?”
The hands came up again.
“I mean, yes, MISTER Fax.”
Mullaney massaged his jaw back into place, then ran a hand alongside the rectangular stone box. “I hate to leave this thing behind.”
Strictly speaking, the thing was not an actual coffin; rather it once served as the outer casing for a sarcophagus.
“I haven’t finished translating the inscription carved on the lid.”
“Inscription, subscription, who cares?” Fax waved his hands carelessly. “With the money from this deal you could buy a truckload of coffins and spend the rest of your life translating them.”
“Could” was the operative word here; meaning, you could if I left you anything. Once again, Fax smiled inwardly, picturing the look on their faces when they discovered they’d been had.
“My God, it’s hot in here,” Mr Fax complained, pulling at his sticky shirt as he and Mullaney exited the storeroom. They were walking down the corridor to a room at the far end where the scam was to take place. “Open a window while I change into some dry clothes. I’m sweating worse than the Brazos River.”
“My father used to say the bread you throw upon the waters will come back to you,” said Mullaney, apropos of nothing; unless he was having a pang of conscience over what they were about to do.
“Your father was also a eunuch,” Fax snorted, chucking his damp suit into the closet. “The only way for that to happen would be for the river to flow backward.”
He unhooked a fresh coat from a hanger and draped it over a desk chair. The room was laid out with one comfortable chair facing the desk. That was where the victim would sit. On top of the desk was an upright metal rod. The rod functioned as a display stand on which Fax placed the “ancient Egyptian cat mask” he planned on selling the sucker. The closet was behind the desk.
The plan was for Fax to prepare their victim with a wild tale about the cat mask’s supernatural properties. Then Mullaney, listening outside, would flip a switch, dousing the lights. This would provide Fax an excuse to leave the room to investigate the blackout. Meanwhile, a darkly disguised confederate (Mullaney’s brother, Myron) would come out of the closet and take hold of the mask, lifting it off the stand and pretending to hover in mid air. With the victim understandably startled, the confederate would slip back into the closet, the lights would come back on, and Fax would return and close the deal.
“You put a lot of effort into your scams,” Mullaney observed with grudging admiration.
“Listen, kid, if a man came to me wanting Adam’s missing rib, and he was willing to pay, I guarantee I’d find it for him.”
“Still,” Mullaney went on, a lingering scrap of conscience continuing to gnaw at him. “We are taking advantage of people.”
Fax sighed, wondering where he’d gone wrong that his nephew should have qualms over what they were doing.
“Let me lay it out for you, kid,” Fax’s voice hardened. “In this world you’re either a giver or a taker. Now I knew a man once who wanted to be a good humanitarian. So he gave away his fortune and lived a simple life serving others. Only that didn’t satisfy him, so he became a blood donor. Then he let them take his plasma. For free, mind you. Finally he became an organ donor. If someone needed a kidney or a piece of his liver, the man volunteered his without a thought. Finally he was laid out on his deathbed, the doctors having removed everything they could, with the rest of him scheduled to go after he was gone. And as he was passing away somebody asked him if he had a sense of fulfillment after all his sacrifices. With his final breath, the man looked the other person in the eye and said, ‘To tell the truth, the whole thing has left me feeling quite empty.’”
The traffic roared outside, flooding the air with carbon monoxide. A metro bus hit its airbrake with a sound like a cat’s hiss. The smell of fast food mingled with exhaust smoke. Fax suddenly felt hungry. He wondered if he had time to catch a burger.
“Where are my trousers?” he panted.
“You left them in the closet,” Mullaney told him.
Fax reopened the door. It made a slight squeak.
“You better oil those hinges. I don’t want any noise when Meyer slips into the room.”
“I mean, yes, Mr Fax.”
The corridor bisecting Fax’s offices was shaped like an “L.” The “set-up” room sat at the top, or farthest end, of the hall. Next to this was the storeroom with the stone coffin. The storeroom abutted another building, so there were no windows to allow for any ventilation. At the short end of the “L,” after the right angle turn, was the reception area where Mullaney waited for their chump to arrive.
Opposite the storeroom was Fax’s private sanctum. From this room he could look out onto an alley behind the reception area. In it (Fax’s sanctum, not the alley) was a cheap wooden desk, a telephone, and two suitcases. Fax retired there to make a call.
“Hello? Texas Overland Air Transport? The airline that suits you ‘to a T’? What can you do for me? Well for starters you could come up with a better slogan for your company.
“Listen, this is… Wait a minute.” Fax dug the fake passport from his coat pocket and read off the name. “Moses Subotsky. That’s right. M-O-S-E-S. Like the prophet. The guy who, after spending forty years in the Arabian desert, picked the only region without oil to settle down in.
“I have a reservation on the red eye to Rio and I want you to send someone over. Do I have any baggage? No, my conscience is clear. But I need you to pick up some suitcases. What do you mean, ‘How high?’ What are you, a comedian? And make sure you send one suitcase to Frankfurt and the other to Guam. What do you mean you can’t do that? You did it the last time I flew.
“Also could I get a better meal this time? The last one I had was fit for a king. In fact it tasted like it was last served to King Tut.
“All right then. Tell your courier not to knock. Just come around back and get them. Okay. Same to you. Thanks.”
Scarcely had he finished this call when the telephone rang. Fax was tempted to ignore it, only then he thought it might be his client, lost and asking directions, so he picked up the receiver and said hello.
The voice at the other end was not the one he expected.
“Meyer? My boy, where are you? You should have been here by now.
“What? What do you mean you can’t make it tonight?
“You have a headache? Meyer, how many times have I told you, when you get out of bed it’s feet first?
“Look, Meyer, I was counting on you. My entire plan depends upon having someone play the part of a dead person and you’re perfect for it. Remember all those times the dog tried to bury you as a kid?
“I said ‘fine,’ all right?
“Yeah, yeah, go take something for it.
“Like what? I don’t know. Try arsenic.”
“Well this is a fine kettle of gefilte fish.”
Mr Fax slammed the phone into its cradle.
“Now what am I supposed to do? I have to stay inside with the client, Mullaney has to be outside to turn off the lights, and Mazurki is out looking for railroad ties. Who can I get to hide in the closet?”
Fax was mad enough to pull his hair out, only seeing as he didn’t have any he poked his head out the window, wondering if there might be some derelict wino lying about who could play the part.
Fortune favored him to a degree. There were no winos about but he did catch sight of a small kid standing in the alley, staring at the sky while cradling a cat in his arms. A kid, Fax reasoned, might prove better than a wino; more clear-headed anyway; and his smaller stature would be better suited for slipping in and out of the closet.
Plus, with his client set to arrive any minute now, Fax really didn’t have much choice.
“Hey, kid,” Fax called to the young boy as he stepped out the back door.”
“Yes?” the kid replied in a soft voice.
“Good grief,” Fax gasped. “His voice hasn’t broken yet.”
He beckoned him closer.
“Tell me, son; how would you like to earn a dollar?”
“I don’t know,” the kid replied disrespectfully. “How would YOU like to get your eyes checked?”
As the kid stepped into the light from the back door, Fax saw it wasn’t a boy after all. It was a young girl in her mid-teens; maybe younger. It was hard to tell. She was very small and Mr Fax’s eyes, despite his glasses, were very bad.
“What’s a little girl like you you doing out here at this time of night? Shouldn’t you be home in bed?”
“The cat and I are studying orbital patterns,” the girl explained matter-of-factly. “Cats were the first astronomers. They could tell us how to reach other planets if they wanted to.”
“I didn’t know that. Maybe I’ll take him up on it some time.”
“Her. The cat’s a her.”
“Fine, whatever. Only at the moment I don’t need a celestial navigator. What I need is an accomplice. So do you want to earn a buck or not?”
“Okay, but no kinky stuff.”
Now that the girl was inside his office Fax got a better look at her.
She was ridiculously small, four-foot-ten at best, with large dark eyes set in an otherwise plain-featured face. Her short, boyish hair was an incredible blue-black, and she had on cutoffs and a little t-shirt that showed her belly button.
That is, it would have shown off her belly button if she’d had one. Only in this case Fax wasn’t paying attention. His focus was strictly on her size, picturing her as ideal for pulling off the darkroom deception on which his scheme depended.
“Oh, baby,” he muttered. “Where have you been all my life?”
“In grade school, most likely,” the girl replied. “By the way, my name’s Jo——”
A pair of hands shot out, cupping the back of her head and clamping over her mouth. The sound of the simultaneous impact produced a loud PLOP!
“Please,” Fax begged. “No names. Let’s keep it strictly on a cash basis.”
Jo wiggled herself free, working her jaw from side to side. “You know you could get arrested for that.”
“What? Arrest? Oh, no-no baby;” Fax quickly back-pedaled. “You got me all wrong.”
The man’s cadence reminded Jo of Hokey Wolf. It pretty much told her all she needed to know.
“This is strictly legit. Well, not strictly legit, but it’s not what you were thinking. I just need your help in pulling a little prank on a friend of mine.”
Fax went on to explain what he needed her to do. Jo listened, not saying anything until he finished.
“In other words,” Jo cut to the chase, “you want to pull a con.”
“Please. I don’t like that word.”
“Then you’re saying it isn’t a con?”
“No. I only said I didn’t like that word.”
Jo took a moment to consider the proposition. To Fax it looked like she was consulting the cat, which was now sitting on a bench. It was a Cat of Many Colors, its fur containing practically every color possible for a cat to have.
“That’s one ugly animal,” Fax remarked offhandedly. “How many fathers did she have?”
Jo’s hands shot out, one cupping the back of Fax’s head and the other clamping over his mouth. The sound of the simultaneous impact produced a loud PLOP!
“Don’t say that,” she cautioned him. “She’s very sensitive.”
Fax moved his jaw from side to side, working it back into place. It wasn’t that the tiny girl had slapped him all that hard. It was the unexpectedness of it that had caught him off guard.
As he did this, the girl ran her fingers over the cat’s soft variegated coat, telling her she was indeed beautiful. Fax glanced at his watch, seeing time was running short.
“So is it a deal or not?”
Cat and girl exchanged glances.
“We’ll do it——for ten dollars.”
Fax’s voice splintered in a fit of coughing that wracked his chubby frame from head to foot.
“For a simple favor you want I should pay five dollars?”
“I said ten.” She took hold of Fax’s wrist, tapping her tiny finger against the crystal of his watch. “Ten bucks… or bupkis.”
With time running out, Fax gave in saying, “Fine, fine, I give you the seven.”
Sometime after eleven, a surreptitious knock signaled their client’s arrival. Mullaney opened the door on a timid-looking, middle-aged man with owlish glasses and a wispy moustache. Taking his hat and umbrella, the nephew led him down the inner corridor to Fax’s private room where the entrepreneur sat waiting.
“Mr Foulger!” Fax, rising from his chair, greeted him with all the solicitude he would have shown an expectant grandmother. Wasting no time, he placed an arm around the man’s shoulder as he ushered him down the hall toward the special room saying, “Allow me to take you in.”
“I certainly appreciate you seeing me at this late hour, Mr Fax,” Foulger spoke mildly as he allowed himself to be led along the corridor.
“Please,” Fax begged. “We’re friends. Call me Artie. And you won’t mind if I call you Byron, right?”
“Actually, I prefer we stick with Mr Foulger. I apologize for my being late,” he went on. “The truth is I had a difficult time finding the building. Frankly it’s not an imposing front.”
“Ah well, lucky for me I don’t have an edifice complex.”
The special room was ready to receive its prize sucker. The window was opened sufficient enough to admit a bit of air; otherwise the curtain was drawn, admitting only the tiniest amount of light from outside. All door hinges had been oiled, Mr Foulger’s chair faced the desk where the Egyptian cat mask was on display, and Mullaney was stationed outside with his hand poised to turn off the lights at Fax’s verbal cue.
As Mr Foulger was settling into the deep chair (Fax had specifically chosen an extra-soft cushion to make it difficult for him to move about), Fax sidled to the closet and opened it a crack to check if the girl was ready.
Jo had donned a floor-length black robe and she and the Cat of Many Colors were sitting on the floor waiting to do their thing. They had agreed upon a signal where Fax would knock one time for her to stay and twice when it was okay for her to come out. For the rest she would watch the light shining under the door and wait for it to got out before going into her act.
Seeing Mr Fax outside the door, she held up a hand, thumb and forefinger forming a circle. Mr Fax gave her a brief half-grin, closed the door, and went back to his client.
The pigeon, he told himself, was ready for plucking.
Fax began by softening him up with a few minor items.
“Can I interest you in this ancient funeral urn, complete with the ashes of Pharaoh Ra-ten? It’d make for a great conversation piece at any party.”
“No thanks.” Mr Foulger declined. “I already have one.”
“Well, you know what they say: One GOOD URN deserves another.”
Mr Foulger, stone-faced, replied, “If you’ll excuse my saying, Mr Fax, I didn’t come all this way to look at any Ra-ten ashes.”
If it came out as a joke, it was completely unintentional.
“Right, right,” Fax took it in stride, not having expected to make the sale anyway. “Perhaps some erotic Etruscan pottery would be to your liking? They could come in handy for storing your Viagra tablets.”
“In the first place, Mr Fax, I don’t need Viagra tablets.”
“Well, good for you. We should all be so fortunate at our age.”
“I meant I not married and that being the case I have no use for them.”
“Oh, a traditionalist. How refreshing in these immoral times.”
“To say nothing of the fact that mother would not approve of such a thing. Now, Mr Fax, it’s growing late so could we please get down to business?” Foulger pointed to the cat mask atop the upright display on the desk. “You said you had a one-of-a-kind ceremonial mask used by vestal virgin priestesses of the cult of Bubastis. I assume that’s it on the desktop.”
“Indeed, you are correct,” Fax effused, suddenly becoming an encyclopedia of knowledge. “A genuine festal mask as mentioned in Hag Rider’s 1885 Allan Quarantine adventure, NEFERTITI’S BOOTY.
“Acting on information gleaned from that book, I traveled far into the inner reaches of darkest Africa in search of the elusive treasure. Weeks and months I trekked the trackless wastes, starving and without water, fighting off hostile tribes of wild Bedouin bent on keeping me from my goal——”
“Can we skip ahead to the part where Abbot and Costello find the tomb entrance?” Mr Foulger requested.
“Hmmf,” Fax snorted. “You suspect business the monkey. Well just cast your eyes here on the desktop and you see the proof of my testimony.
“Tons of specimens I could have gathered… priceless beyond count… But the most priceless of them all was this, the mask of Bubastis, the cat goddess of Ancient Egypt.
“But if getting there was hard, returning to civilization was even worse; for I was hounded at every step by emissaries of the god Set, whose iconic animal was that of a pig. They dogged my every step——if you’ll pardon my mixing the metaphor——intent on killing me and destroying the mask.”
“Why would they want to do that?” asked Mr Foulger, suddenly interested.
“Oh, that,” Fax shrugged. “Well you see it’s like this: the cults of Bast and Set were constantly at odds with each other, the followers of the cat claiming superiority over those of the pig. You might say they had a holier than sow attitude.”
“I’ve heard enough,” Mr Foulger exclaimed, totally taken by Fax’s recital. He tried to get up from the soft chair but the deep cushion prevented his moving. “I’ll take it!”
Beyond the confines of the tiny room, across the wide sky that spread itself above the city, stars glittered in the hard black night like rhinestones scattered against a velvet backdrop. At the same time, within Fax’s soft plump body, an inner smile escaped the black hole confines of his heart, the illumination from which could have given life to a thousand more cons and swindles.
Fax forced himself to look away, fearing his smile might betray him. Although he had succeeded in hooking his fish, there was still the matter of landing him; which in this case meant getting him to pay the price Fax was demanding. Now was the time to spring his trap, based on his earlier knowledge of his client’s interest in the supernatural.
So rather than acting immediately to Foulger’s offer, Fax instead assumed a concerned look, as though he were loath to conclude the deal.
Mr Foulger, seeing this, asked, “Is anything wrong?”
Fax licked his lips, and answered reluctantly.
“Of course I feel it only fair to warn you the mask is reputed to have supernatural properties.”
He paused as though waiting for something to happen.
Mr Foulger looked on, waiting for Fax to continue.
“Yes?” he prompted. “You were saying.”
“I said,” Fax raised his voice so it could be heard beyond the door, “the mask is reputed to have SUPERNATURAL PROPERTIES.”
This time Mullaney picked up his cue and flipped the outside switch, plunging the room into total darkness.
Mr Foulger started at the sudden change but Mr Fax laid a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Nothing to worry about. It’s probably just a fuse. You stay here while I check.” So saying Mr Fax hurried from the room, leaving Foulger alone with the mask.
Mr Foulger sighed and tried to make himself comfortable. This was easier said than done for the soft, deep-cushioned chair hugged him like an octopus in a bed of quicksand, and the profound darkness made it difficult, if not impossible, to get his bearings.
That however was an exaggeration on Mr Foulger’s part. The room wasn’t completely dark. There was some light filtering through the window from an outside streetlamp. Still, it was dark enough to make a nervous man like Mr Foulger uncomfortable. Although he professed an interest in the supernatural, he never entered into investigations alone, and he always made sure there was sufficient candlelight available to find his way around.
“Oh, well,” Mr Foulger assured himself, in a mental equivalent of whistling in the dark. “It will only be a minute. How long can it take to change a fuse?”
He was answered by a soft meow from the direction of the desk.
Then Mr Foulger glanced around and saw, or thought he saw, something very strange. From the metal display on which it rested the golden mask with the cat-like features appeared to have floated upward from the metal rod supporting it. The dim light from the streetlamp showed it gliding toward him at a height of about four feet and ten inches above the floor. It moved very slowly, but it moved all the same. Now it reached him and paused, stopping before Mr Foulger at eye level where it stayed, staring into his face, just as though it were a real cat glaring at him.
Mr Foulger uttered a groan, and fell back, sinking further into the chair as it circled the upholstered seat, coming to a rest behind him. For a moment that seemed eternal the celestial countenance hovered above him, surrounded by blackness in the empty air. Then as though it were guided by some eldritch intelligence the thing turned, very deliberately and came back around to the front where it hung once more before his face.
Mr Foulger felt perspiration flow like water down the side of his face. His body was an island surrounded by a sea of nervous sweat as his tense fingers dug into the upholstered arm of the chair. Then from out of nowhere a cat fell into his lap. A real cat; not an imaginary one; not a floating phantom, but a real live cat with fur and claws and a tail that brushed his nose as it jumped to the floor and disappeared in the darkness. At the same time the floating cat mask resumed its place on the display case and, moments later, the lights came back on.
Shortly after which Mr Fax reentered the room.
“Sorry, about that,” he apologized. “It was like I said; a blown fuse. I hope I didn’t——”
Mr Foulger fought his way free of the chair and staggered to the desk where he began to fumble for the display stand. The cat mask reposed calmly on its pillar, to all appearances immovable and undisturbed, an inanimate piece of forged shiny gold metal. For a while there was silence. Then Mr Foulger, recovering himself, stammered:
“D-d-did y-you see that?”
“See what?” Fax asked innocently.
“B-b-b-bast,” Mr Foulger finally managed to spit it out. “The goddess Bubastis appeared here in this very room.”
“Oh?” Fax maintained his pretense of disinterest.
“It was her, I tell you!” Mr Foulger continued babbling. “The spirit of Bubastis… along with her familiar!”
Fax glanced at his fingernails and shrugged. “You were expecting Virginia Christine and Lon Chaney?”
Fax’s apparent indifference seemed to sober up his client.
“You certainly don’t act very surprised,” he observed, growing indignant.
Mr Fax had an excellent poker face. He put it into practice as he replied, “Should I be? I told you before the mask is said to have supernatural properties.”
No sooner did Fax say it that the lights went off again. Fax yelled, “Mul-lay-neeee!” and they came back on.
Fax was seething to a point that steam threatened to whistle from his ears, fearing his nephew had blown everything.
“It’s just my idiot receptionist fiddling with the fuses,” he explained, without giving Foulger time to react, and hurriedly picked up where he’d left off.
“As I was saying, the mask is reputed to have…” he lowered his voice to where it could not be heard beyond the room, “supernatural properties.”
He paused a second, then went on in his normal voice.
“Not that I’ve personally experienced such things. It takes a special type. Only those with a particular connection to the other world can sense these phenomena. That’s why the previous owner returned it. He found it unsettling to have communication with a spirit of the dead past. Of course, if you’re not interested…” He reached for the mask as if to take it away.
“Are you kidding?” Mr Foulger snatched it from Fax’s hand. “Of course I want it! I’ve always been interested in the supernatural.”
“I didn’t know that,” Fax lied skillfully.
Mr Foulger’s eyes glazed over as he continued. “I’ll pay whatever you want for it.” He caught himself. “Within reason, of course.”
“Of course,” Fax repeated. “Naturally I wouldn’t want to take unfair advantage of you.” Had Fax not been a skilled liar his nose, by now, would have grazed the opposite wall. “Suppose we agree to price of——”
An incredible figure was on the tip of Mr Fax’s tongue, but before he could give it utterance he was interrupted by a knock at the door. Without waiting for a reply, Mullaney slipped into the room and walked straight up to his uncle.
“Uncle Phil,” he whispered urgently into Fax’s ear, earning him another PLOP! as two hands encircled his face.
“Ixnay on the Ilphay,” Fax hissed.
He released the grip and Mullaney continued:
“You need to step outside. Something urgent has just come up.”
“Mullaney, you idiot,” Fax took his nephew aside and angrily whispered back. “Can’t you see I’m on the verge of closing the deal?”
“I realize that, Uncle, but this can’t wait. In fact, it won’t wait.”
“What won’t wait?”
“Herr Klozoff, the man you sold——”
Again the hands clamped down on Mullaney’s jaws——PLOP!——and Fax rushed him out the door, calling over his shoulder, “Just a minor matter, Mr Foulger. I’ll be back in a jiffy.” Then, once in the foyer: “What do you mean, Klozoff’s here?”
“He turned up just now and forced his way in, demanding to see you. It’s about that piece you sold him last week.”
“Oy vey!” Fax ran a hand over his sweaty forehead. “Well, try to stall him until I finish up here.”
“I can’t do that, Uncle. He insists on seeing you now. And he has a bodyguard with him.”
“A bodyguard! Not that woman wrestler he brought along last week.”
“No, Uncle. I didn’t see a woman with Herr Klozoff.”
“That’s because you always have your nose stuck in a book! I keep telling you to get out more.”
“That’s not what I mean, Uncle. I meant——”
What Mullaney meant was made clear as Herr Klozoff pushed into the room from the outer reception area. At his side was an enormous German Shepard. The dog went straight for Mr Fax, rearing on its hind legs and pushing him against the wall with its forepaws resting on his shoulders. Lot’s Wife could not have been more immobile as the animal’s hot breath steamed Fax’s nose hairs.
“You, uh, want to call off the Gestapo?” he asked, trying to maintain an appearance of calm.
“Down, Blitzkrieg,” Klozoff ordered the animal.
The animal sat down, keeping its face within jaws-length of Fax’s crotch. Fax stared down at it, “Nice doggie,” and then looked up at his newest visitor. “Chester,” he tried greeting him cordially. “Good of you to drop by. It is all right if I call you Chester?”
“MISTER Klozoff will do,” the man answered in a gravelly voice. “Only my friends call me Chester.” He paused dramatically, then added: “And I have no friends.”
“I’m not at all surprised,” Fax mumbled. “You’re dog probably ate them all.”
Herr Klozoff was a big man, squarely built. He looked as much like Neville Brand as a man can look like Neville Brand without actually being Neville Brand. His face presented an immovable countenance set beneath a massive brow. And, much like the killer in the movie DOA, he could get a really crazed look in his eye when angered. That look was on display now as Mr Fax asked:
“So, um, what brings you calling this time of night?”
Klozoff lifted a gloved hand and beckoned Fax to step forward. Fax reluctantly obeyed, first checking to see if it was okay with the dog, then cleared the intervening space with a bound. He was met by a rock-hard fist that knocked him to the floor.
“What was that for?” Fax shot a glance in the direction of the other door, hoping Mr Foulger had not heard anything.
“THAT,” said Klozoff, “was because I don’t like chiselers.”
“Chiseler?” Fax exclaimed indignantly. “Me, a chiseler?”
“A swindler then,” Klozoff suggested.
“That’s better,” Fax babbled, somewhat dazed as he got to his feet.
“Now talk, Silversteen,” Klozoff demanded, “and make it good.”
Immediately Mullaney reached up and clamped his hands around Klozoff’s face, the simultaneous impact producing a loud PLOP!
“Ixnay on the Ilversay,” Mullaney told him. “His name is MISTER Fax.” Suddenly realizing what he had just done, he dropped his hands, his face paling to a cheesy-white hue as he muttered profuse apologies.
“Gosh, Mr Klozoff,” he fumbled around straightening Klozoff’s lapels and smoothing his necktie. “I don’t know what came over me. Really, I——”
“Suppose you wait in the reception area,” Klozoff suggested, knocking the nephew’s hands aside.
“That… Yes sir, that’s exactly what I’ll do,” Mullaney agreed, backing to the door. “I’ll just stay there in case anyone else should drop in.”
“That would be an excellent idea,” Klozoff approved, his voice like an iron icicle. “I’ll have Blitzkrieg go with you… in case you should decide to try anything stupid.”
“Gosh, Mr Klozoff,” Mullaney flinched under his withering gaze. “I’d never——”
“Blitzkrieg!” Klozoff barked a command. It was but a single word but the dog knew exactly what to do as it locked jaws on Mullaney’s coat sleeve and hauled him out of the room.
“Nice playmate you have there,” Fax complimented Klozoff. “Must come in handy when you want a little privacy.”
“Let’s get down to business, Fax. You sold me a fake Egyptian dining bowl and I want my money back.”
“Fake? Me sell a fake? What makes you think the bowl I sold you is phony?”
“Well for one thing, it has the words MADE IN BANGLADESH stamped in tiny print at the bottom.”
“Oh, that. Well the Bangladeshis always were modest people; humble to a fault. Nevertheless, if you read your Wilbur Rant and other historians, you’d know Bangladesh was an Egyptian protectorate during the reign of Pharaoh Ra-ten, one of the lesser known rulers of the 13th Dynasty. It was an area rich in gold ore and they made all the Pharaoh’s dishes, not to mention his Island shirts and sandals.”
“His Island shirts?”
“I said not to mention it.”
Klozoff, unamused, removed a glove and smacked Fax across the face with it, sending his glasses sliding across the floor.
Fax stifled a cry, fearing his plans would go up in smoke should Mr Foulger hear him from the other room. Wiping the sweat from his forehead, for it was quite hot in the foyer, Fax retrieved his glasses and, taking his time, fastened them back on his head.
“Of course. I see now what happened. I accidentally gave you the demo model. You know, the one I use for trade shows.”
Klozoff said nothing as he removed his other glove, revealing on the middle finger of his left hand, a platinum band with a ruby inset. “Go on,” he commanded, twisting the ring as he spoke.
“The whole thing is inexpressibly depressing. But the good news is I still have the real serving dish in storage.”
Fax no more had a “real” Egyptian serving dish than he had honest bones in his body. But in the interest of keeping what bones he did have in their sockets and unbroken, he did have a dozen or more duplicates dishes stashed at the bottom of the stone coffin where he kept all of his relics. One of them was sure not to have MADE IN BANGLADESH engraved on it. It was just a matter of finding the right one.
“Fine,” said Klozoff. “Let’s go get it.”
“Oh, but you wouldn’t want to go in there.” Fax held up a mildly restraining hand as he opened the door to the storage room. “The heat inside is stifling. You can see for yourself there are no windows and what little breeze I have coming in from the foyer is blowing in the wrong direction.”
Klozoff experimented for himself, sticking his head into the room and feeling the oven-temperature heat melt his pompadour. The room was, as Fax indicated, windowless, with no way for anyone to get out except through the doorway in which he stood.
“All right,” Klozoff stepped aside, allowing Fax entry. “But make it quick. I’m not going to wait all night.”
“I’ll be back in a jiffy,” Fax assured him. “Meanwhile I’ll close the door behind me so the heat from in here doesn’t creep into the foyer.”
Mr Fax leaned over the lip of the coffin, ever mindful of the sawed-off railroad beam propping the heavy stone lid. Somewhere amid all the junk at the bottom of the thing had to be a dish suitable to his needs.
“Just look at me,” he complained. “I’m literally scraping rock bottom.”
While Fax sifted and sweated in the storeroom, Klozoff, confident Fax would not try another double-cross, grew bored with waiting and decided to have a look at what was in the other room, the one toward which Fax had cast so many furtive glances during their conversation.
Meanwhile, Mr Foulger, although fascinated with the golden cat mask on the display stand, had become uncomfortable in its solitary presence and to ease his mind, took up a newspaper which Fax had left earlier that evening on top of the desk. He opened it to the sports section and was just finishing the wrestling results when Mr Klozoff stuck his head inside.
“How are the Astros doing?” Klozoff inquired.
“Not very well,” Mr Foulger replied absent-mindedly. “At batting practice the pitching machine threw a no-hitter.” Then, glancing up, he saw the man step into the room. “Hello,” Foulger extended his hand. “My name’s——”
Immediately Klozoff’s hands wrapped themselves around Foulger’s face. They landed with a loud PLOP!
“It’s best we remain anonymous,” Klozoff cautioned. Catching sight of the cat mask on display he added: “We both know what business we’re in so the less said the better.”
“Yes,” Foulger agreed. “I suppose you’re right. I wonder what’s keeping Mr Fax anyway. He told me he’d be right back but he’s been gone over twenty minutes.”
“Mr Fax, as you call him, is taking care of some urgent business for me,” Klozoff explained, letting slip, “A little matter of an Egyptian dining dish.”
“Oh?” Mr Foulger’s eyes went wide behind his wire-rim spectacles. “You don’t say. Fax sold me an Egyptian dining dish last month. A one-of-a-kind discovery he said. Told me how it was fashioned by a colony of Bangladeshis who designed the Pharaoh’s clothing as well.”
Klozoff crossed the room and within ten seconds was shaking Foulger by his coat lapels. “Say that again,” he demanded. And Foulger did, although it took considerably more effort this time around as he stuttered his way through his tale.
Klozoff let go of Foulger and, uncharacteristic for him, apologized.
“I’m sure if you examine that cat mask it says MADE IN BANGLADESH somewhere inside it.”
“No,” Mr Foulger responded, holding his glasses out from his face to magnify the etchings on the inner surface of the relic. “It says MADE IN CEYLON. I wonder if the Egyptians conquered that country as well?”
Klozoff, with an exasperated shake of his head, explained the situation in terms that even Mr Foulger could grasp.
“Oh, but that can’t be.” Mr Foulger did not want to believe what Klozoff told him since to do so would upset his faith in the supernatural. “If the mask is a fake then how could it have levitated itself off the table and floated across the room in my presence?”
Frustrated at the unshakable steadfastness of Folger’s belief in things occult, Klozoff paced the floor, fighting down his mounting anger. Crossing the room to the closet behind the desk he vented his rage by pounding his fist twice upon the closed door.
At this, the agreed upon signal (“I’ll knock two times when it’s safe to come out.”), Jo opened the door from inside and stepped out, one hand holding the Cat of Many Colors and the other hidden behind her back.
“Oh, hello.” She exhibited mild surprise. “I thought you were the bald guy with the glasses. You haven’t seen him, have you? It’s past my bed-time and he hasn’t paid me yet.”
From behind her back she brought out the black robe she’d worn and set it on the table. At this Mr Foulger’s eyes went wide and his jaw hit the floor as it finally dawned on him the deception that had been perpetrated:
A small girl, hiding in the closet, disguised in a black robe, waits for the lights to go out. Then in the pitch black darkness, she slips out of the closet, lifts the cat mask from its display stand, places it on her head, and pretends to be the floating spirit of an Egyptian goddess.
Foulger cursed himself for his stupidity. All the more so he damned Mr Fax for his chutzpah in trying, and almost succeeding, to pull off such a fraud.
“I do believe I’m beginning to smell a rat,” he announced to all present.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Jo spoke up innocently. “That’s the cat’s job, and she can get very jealous at people muscling in on her territory.”
“Kid,” said Klozoff, twisting the ruby ring on his finger, “you have no idea what ‘muscling’ is. But stick around and you’ll get an eyeful.”
A moment later the hall door opened and Mr Fax peeked inside.
“Oh,” he startled, seeing Klozoff and Foulger together. “I see you’ve met.” Steeling himself, knowing he had to keep up a good front, he came inside saying, “I… uh… found the authentic dining dish you were asking about.”
Klozoff said nothing during this interchange. Only his hands moved, one about the other, his fingers playing with the ruby in its platinum setting.
“I guarantee,” Fax continued, “you won’t find MADE IN BANGLADESH anywhere on it.”
On that word, Klozoff slapped Mr Fax squarely in the face. The sound was like a pistol-shot through the room. Fax made a sobbing sound like “Ah-h-h-h…” and, propelled backward, collapsed into the chair behind the desk.
Jo flinched at the sight while the Cat of Many Colors cast a warning growl in the direction of Mr Klozoff.
Fax, cross-eyed, put one hand to his face. The ruby ring had scratched his cheek and now a thread of blood oozed to the surface. The swindler’s hand came down and he stared at his smeared fingers with an expression of vacant bewilderment.
“For God’s sake,” he cried. “Would you stop hitting me? I said I’d make good on it.”
“Indeed,” Klozoff nodded coldly. “You did, and you will.”
The “authentic” Egyptian dining dish had slipped from Fax’s fingers when Klozoff slapped him. Mr Foulger bent to pick it up. His face matched the ruby red of Klozoff’s ring as he straightened, looking closely at the “ancient antiquity.”
“Why you dirty fink. You stinking yellow-bellied weasel.” The once timid voice took on an unaccustomed note of harshness. “This is the same one-of-a-kind dining dish you sold me last month.” He turned and faced Klozoff. “I came here in good faith expecting an honest black market transaction and instead he pitched me a fantastic story… And I sat there and swallowed it.”
“He won’t be doing anymore pitching after this,” Klozoff promised Foulger. “Not with both arms broken.”
“Chester. Byron. Please.” Fax held out his arms in supplication.
Immediately both men slapped their hands over his mouth, the simultaneous impact producing a loud PLOP! PLOP!
“Ixnay on the amesnay!” they shouted in unison.
Fax took a moment to work his jaw back into place. While doing this he weighed his options. The scale came up short.
“Gentlemen, please,” he said at last. “Can’t we settle this like civilized people?”
“We’re here,” Foulger indicated Klozoff and himself. “Only who’s going to represent you?”
“All right, all right,” Fax gave in. “I admit I made a mistake. What say I return your money and we call it even?”
This was acceptable to Foulger only before he could agree Klozoff laid a silencing hand on his shoulder and proposed a counteroffer.
“How about you return our money… with interest?”
“With interest?” Fax blinked from behind his skewed glasses. “Um, exactly how much interest would you suggest?”
“All of it,” said Klozoff evenly.
“All of it?” Fax gulped.
“All of it,” Klozoff repeated. “It’s only fair we be compensated for our trouble.”
“Don’t forget me,” Jo piped up from her little corner of the room. They had all but forgotten her presence. “He promised me twenty dollars for helping him out.”
“Twenty dollars!” Fax cried out. “And you guys call me a chiseler? I only offered her ten.”
He shut up then, realizing he’d just confessed to everything.
“That’s okay, kid,” Klozoff reached into his coat pocket and pulled out his wallet. “Here’s a fifty. Now take your cat and get out of here. The fewer witnesses the better.”
Jo took the USG and went to the door. “It was nice to have met you all,” she said as she headed out. “If there’s ever anything I can do for you just call me. My name’s Jo and——”
Four sets of hands went for her face but she managed to duck them in time, saying, “I know. Ixnay on the amesnay.” And she hurried on toward the reception room door.
All the while, Mr Fax had been mouthing the words, “Call the cops!” only Jo in her haste did not see this. And so he resigned himself to the inevitable.
The inevitable, however, would have to wait awhile.
When Jo opened the reception room door the first thing she saw was Fax’s nephew, Mullaney, sitting crunched up in a corner. The second thing she saw was Blitzkrieg, Klozoff’s over-sized German Shepard, keeping watch on the cringing nephew.
Mullaney looked up at Jo.
Blitzkrieg looked up at the Cat of Many Colors cradled in Jo’s arm.
The dog growled, the cat spat, and the chase was on.
“No, no, kitty,” Jo chased after them as the two took off down the corridor in the direction of the room they had quitted. “Come back!”
The two hit the room where the three men prepared to go about their business (Jo had left the door slightly ajar when she went out) and the cat rocketed across the floor and atop the desk. The dog followed, knocking all three men aside.
Seeing a break, Fax got to his feet and slipped away.
Cat and dog circled the room, once again knocking down the two remaining men, then sprinted back down the corridor in the same direction the fleeing Fax had taken.
Jo joined the chase, followed closely by Foulger and Klozoff.
Fear lent wings to Fax’s feet as he outdistanced his pursuers. Reality however told him there was no place to go to effect an escape.
Only one possibility existed. It was not a preferable one, but as it was he had little choice.
Reaching the storeroom, Fax ducked inside and made a headfirst dive into the rectangular stone coffin, pulling a burlap cover over himself.
He lay still as possible, trying to control his breathing, praying no one would find him.
Cat and dog followed, the cat taking to the air and running across the burlap cover. Fax cringed when he felt the animal’s claws dig in for traction.
It would be one of the last things he’d ever feel.
For the dog, Blitzkrieg, followed. He too jumped up, landing on the lip of the coffin, missing the cat by inches.
Cats are graceful; dogs not as much.
The heavy canine body bumped against the creosote crosstie that supported the raised lid.
The tie, about which Fax’s man, Mazurki, had expressed concern that it might not withstand the pressure, gave way, snapping in two.
A terrific BOOM! CRASH! followed as, with nothing to support it, the heavy stone lid fell back in place.
It was another hour before Mazurki returned with the new piece of crosstie he’d cut off from the stack of ties down by the railroad tracks.
Foulger and Klozoff had given up their search for Mr Fax. Finding no sign of him anywhere, they assumed he’d escaped them using some unknown passage or else he was hiding someplace where no one could find him.
Chalking the experience down to Lessons Learned, Klozoff retrieved his dog and drove off in his car. Foulger did likewise, wondering if there were any unsuspecting friends on whom he could pass off a genuine authentic ancient Egyptian dining dish made in Bangladesh.
Jo and the Cat of Many Colors had gone as well, each to their separate homes; one richer by fifty dollars, the other rich in knowledge it would never reveal.
Finding the reception room empty, Mazurki proceeded to the storeroom where he found Mullaney examining the stone lid of the coffin, now securely in place, peering at it through a magnifying glass.
The young man looked up excitedly as Mazurki entered.
“Good news, Mazurki. I finally managed to translate the inscription engraved on the lid.”
“That’s great, kid. What does it say?”
“It says: ‘He sleeps in the Palace of Treasure and gathers wisdom from the spirits of those who were before him.’ That’s rather profound, don’t you think?”
“Your uncle would be proud. Where is he anyway?”
Mullaney’s face drooped. He paused to push the glasses back on his thin nose. Finally he confessed: “I think Uncle Phil cut out on us. Took the money and ran off. He wouldn’t have shut the coffin otherwise.”
“Yeah,” Mazurki looked down at the floor. “I always felt he might try something like that after I overheard him order a one-way ticket on the red eye to Rio. But I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt, so…”
He let the sentence dangle, as did the silence in the room.
After a while Mazurki spoke some more.
“Just so it’s not a total loss, I found a buyer for this stone coffin. I thought I’d surprise your uncle seeing as he said we wouldn’t need it anymore. They’ll be here in the morning to pick it up.”
“That’s something anyway,” Mullaney conceded.
“I thought we could seal the lid and say it’s never been opened; tell them who knows what sort of treasures lay hidden inside.”
“Mazurki, you’re a genius. I think we can get along just fine without Uncle Phil. After all,” Mullaney paused to tap twice twice on the coffin lid, “we managed to find this ‘Palace of Treasure’ without him.”
He paused in his speech; a puzzled look crossed his face.
“Did you hear something?” he asked, staring down at the coffin lid.
“Nah,” Mazurki shook his head and laughed. “Not unless it’s one of your ‘treasures’ wanting to get out.”
Thank you for reading my book.
Please consider leaving a review.
Connect with me online:
Or email me at: