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art by Jonathan Westbrook

A Case of Curiosities

"What is it?" I asked, marveling that the dusty, timeworn box was able to actually keep its shape.
"Why," he said with a sly grin, "it's a Case of Curiosities. Very rare these days, not many of them left."
"Don't be redundant," I muttered, eyeing the box, my interest piqued. "How much for it?"
He exhaled sharply and clucked his tongue. The fetid breath of coffee, smoke, and tooth decay assaulted my nose. "As I said, it's very rare. I'd really doubt you'd have enough on you," he said. I watched as his eyes clicked off an internal checklist of my good shoes, expensive pocketwatch, and gold buttons.
"Come now, let us part with the pleasantries and get to it. I'll offer you twenty pounds, not a shilling more."
I could see I had overbid, apparently offering more than he was hoping. His yellowed, jaundiced eyes lit up with greed as he countered with fifty pounds.
"I've twenty, nothing more," I repeated. I was still cursing my overenthusiasm under my breath. I was never the businessman, my old wife would repeat often and loudly, until I divorced her with a club and a spade, buried in a pauper's grave. "Perhaps an extra fiver if I like what's in the box," I offered.
"Ah, there's the rub, my good fellow," the tinker said. "What's in the box stays in the box. You can never take out what's within. That's why I'll accept the highwayman's offer of twenty-five."
My grunt was acceptance, and the money traded places with the old box. It was heavier than I had expected, and I almost dropped it onto the muddy street. Something scuttled inside, startling me enough to go through a second round of balancing the box in my hands.
"Say there, I believe there's a rat or something in here. I felt it scurrying back and forth!"
The sly grin widened. "Set it down and let it go, there's a good chap."
Gingerly, I placed the box upon a dry spot. The turnbuckle was rusted, and it took several bloody knuckles to free it enough to open the lid.
Oddly, it seemed to pop open as though it had been filled with too much air.
Instead of rats, there were little human dolls that seemed to move of their own accord and squeak in high voices.
"What is this?" I asked aloud. The tinker guffawed and stammered, but looking closer I could see that the dolls appeared to be real people, gesturing and waving at me to get my attention. A good twenty or so, of several races and social stature.
"My God, what is this?" I repeated. "What deviltry have you boxed up for consumption?" Slowly, I reached in to take up one of the figures.
The streetlight seemed to go out, and the darkness rose up to envelope me. I felt my feet losing their purchase, and I was falling downwards into a black and dusty wooden pit.
My vision cleared. I discovered myself surrounded by pedestrians, all looking at me with saddened faces and looks of defeat. Looking about, I noticed I was surrounded by wooden walls.
The streetlight relit in a shower of sparks, then suddenly eclipsed by a monstrous face, hideous in size and complexion.
It took me a moment to realize it was the face of the Tinker, grown to elephantine proportions.
Another moment corrected my whirling thoughts and I saw I was inside the box, a member of the macabre doll collection.
"A Case of Curiosities, indeed," said the Tinker, his breath chokingly amplified by the confines of the box. "Curiouser and curiouser, a man embraced by simple wood. Just as my half-sister was, but she in a box of pine. Her penance has passed, but yours is just beginning, for the murder most foul of my beloved half-sister--your wife!" he said, and slammed the lid closed to the screaming of those of us convicted by a simple tinker.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

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