San Pedro Joe found the secret that was contained in that intricately carved Oriental box
"Better pay the cash," snarled sallow San Pedro Joe into the telephone mouthpiece. The speaker jerked his head to one side and glanced from the cramped phone booth into the almost-deserted drug store, checking to see whether his conversation had been heard. It was late afternoon—a sultry and stuffy summer day.
"That teakwood box don't mean much to me," Joe continued in a hoarse tone. "And if you want it pretty bad, I'll sell it—otherwise the thing gets chucked out, see?"
Mrs. Floyd Wright's tiny, ill-painted cottage in a smelly Los Angeles suburb had been ransacked a few days previously, leaving bedding overturned, furniture stuffings tumbling everywhere. The teakwood box, to the fidgety old woman, far overshadowed in importance the amount of cash and the few pieces of silver which had also been stolen. Oddly carved and strangely arresting, the prize had been a gift to Mrs. Wright from her husband, recently killed in a factory explosion where he had been night watchman. He had purchased the box during a vagabond trip to China in his boyhood days.
The teakwood container had never been opened by either Mrs. Wright or her husband. "Betty," he used to say while dozing in the parlor and studying the box, "that thing is jinxed, just like I was told. It's dangerous, leave it alone. There is a dreadful native curse on it.
"I got the box from a streetpeddler in Shanghai, who told me he bought it from a priest; he said there was a dire curse to anyone who opened the box, but that it would bring power and good luck to the owner as long as he did not try to do so. I always have said that the box was most likely stolen from a temple by the peddler, or by some other member of the street-scum parade," Wright would conclude.
It would have been difficult to open the box, even if someone did want to pry into it, because its lid was apparently operated by a complex series of springs and pivoting levers. The singularity of the object, its weirdness and strange delicacy, gave it a curious value. When it had been made and by whom—what exotic sights the container had witnessed—were unanswered queries which added to the living personality of the teakwood box. An evil power, dull and half asleep, yet again glowing, awakening, seemed inclosed within the meticulously decorated teakw r ood. Though the Wrights had been almost afraid of the box from the start, they had nevertheless believed that the spirit which might lie within it would not hurt them if they did not molest it. for they had lived good lives.
Some day, the spirit would awaken and strike, but it would not be at a time when they were about. Death, red, grinning, and yellow- fanged, was a part of the exotic treasure; it was not the death of God-fearing men and women, but the bloody, merciless deity of those who belonged in the realm of evil. The little wooden ghouls which stuck forth from the sides appeared to be tireless, unearthly sentinels, waiting, watching for a suitable offering for their drooling master within.
The stick-bodied widow, shut off in a little corner impervious to the noisy streets around her, had prized the six-inch-high box much more than anything else she owned, because of the eccentric affection her husband had placed on it when he was alive. Though he always feared the box, he would sit and watch it for hours, without uttering mpre than a phrase. One time when his wife had returned from shopping, she found him standing in the little yard, blanched and trembling.
"Never, never, can we sell or dispose of that box!" he cried. "The devil inside told me so; if we did, he would do something horrible!"
Mrs. Wright wondered whether her husband had concentrated for so long on the object that his imagination had given him that message, but because of the frightened look in his eyes she accepted what he said and did not question him about it. Wright never spoke about the teakwood box after that, but he sat with it oftener than before; his face, rather than appearing curious, had a grim, hypnotized look as he gazed in silence upon the treasure.
Carefully dusted several times a week, and kept glistening with polish, the curio had rested in a place of honor on the living-room mantelpiece, where it sometimes glowed a mysterious, uncanny luster when a few stray rays of the sun penetrated to it from the curtained windows.
But Mrs. Wright could not comply with the ransom demands of the thief who had snatched it and realized the esteem placed on the box by its owner, because of the obvious care with which it was kept. The old woman was sniffling softly into a tiny, lace handkerchief which she clutched in thin, ivory-colored hands.
"One hundred and fifty bucks or nothin'!" sneered San Pedro Joe. These old people got on his nerves. They were so damned irritating and slow.
"But I can't— can't get that much money," trembled Mrs. Wright, her fingers tightening around the phone receiver.
"You're out of luck then, old woman,'" deridingly returned the thief, and hung up. Ordinarily, he would have dickered to get the best price possible for the stolen object, even though it was lower than he first demanded. But in this case, it gave him a feeling of satisfaction to crush brutally the faltering woman's happiness. San Pedro Joe slowly stepped out of the phone booth, and quickened his pace as he neared the store entrance. He spat at the curbing.
His pasty, selfish face was set off by thin, twisting lips. The black suit he wore was ill-kept, bulging in the wrong places. It was young Joe's habit to drum his fingers on any surface convenient when he was uneasy, and that was most of the time. His watery, cold blue eyes were continually shifting, weighing people he encountered. Joe specialized in robbing ill-kept, run-down homes; there was nearly always something worth his troubles, and then his victims seldom could afford to have much investigation concerning their losses. He was like a cunning spider feeding on bewildered, fluttering moths caught in his net.
In half an hour Joe arrived at his apartment, located in a battered, two-story stucco in the southwest part of Los Angeles. A brief stretch of yellow, dry grass ran between the sidewalk and the plaster-chipped structure. Light from the disappearing sun was shining on the cheerless front windows. Leaving his poorly-kept coupe at the curb, he stepped quickly across the withered lawn and up the cement steps of the building to his rooms.
After a snack of cold beans and white bread, gulped with some warmed-over coffee, joe brought the teakwood box out from the place where he had hidden it under the messy sink. Darkness had come and the moon had not yet risen. Billows of black, angry clouds were' scattered in the sky. Putting the box on the kitchen table, he stood back and regarded the thing. It appeared ominous and resentful on the scarred table-top under the white ceiling light. Joe thought he sensed a feeling of unearthly life in the booty before him. Someone down the hall was coughing hoarsely, and the thief felt chilled.
Suddenly, Joe returned to himself and became intensely curious about that box. He considered what he had found out about it from Mrs. Wright, who, in her desire to get her treasure back, had breathlessly poured out the whole story when questioned. Maybe Mrs. Wright's old man had cached some precious stones or money in the container, conjectured Joe, and had fabricated the yarn about the curse in order to keep people from trying to open the box. The thief, flamed by his greed, decided the teakwood curio deserved an investigation before he discarded it.
At first, he picked up a hammer which was kept in one of the dish-closet drawers, but after a moment's consideration, he determined to try and open the box by its mechanism. Perhaps he could sell it to an antique-dealer after examining what might be inside. Yet had that been the real reason for his decision to use care? Joe wished that fool down the hall would keep quiet; for the first time in his life he felt uncertain, confused.
San Pedro Joe was proud of his ability to do a neat job on breaking into houses, opening strong-boxes, and his conceit prompted him again to forget his forebodings and test his skill by attempting to discover the combination of the box; otherwise, being increasingly nervous, he probably would not have taken the pains which he did to open it so carefully. His fingers trembled—he licked dry, swollen lips. After working for some minutes, he roughly pushed the box from him. Joe imagined the curse, the words of evil, an idol guardian might have incanted on the one who pried into the sacred box, for perhaps it contained some treasured jewels or a temple secret, rather than being simply a hiding-place for Wright's pennies.
The investigator eagerly, impatiently, bent over the shining teakwood again, as though suddenly possessed, and continued his manipulation of the curio's carved knobs and queer levers. For a moment, he thought he detected a slight, shrill cry, followed by a tiny, penetrating whistle. Sweat broke out on Joe's brow as he doggedly kept at his task, fascinated, now unable to pause. Shortly hepressed an unobtrusive bump which had been revealed by sliding a ghoulish little figure ornamenting the container's front to one side. The lid slowly raised upward, as though controlled by a hidden spring. The crook nervously pressed harder on the button he had discovered, in order to hasten the opening of the lid. He was waiting for something—his finger seemed frozen to the box, his whole body was stiffened. Sweat was trickling down his back, yet he was somehow cold.
Suddenly, a sharp, biting flame burned in his thumb, as though he had put it in a fire of hot coals. A strange numbness ran through his arm. He stared down at the table to see a neatly-concealed needle, probably hollow, slowly retreating into the side of the box; in the same glance he saw that the teakwood curio was empty, contained nothing.
Blood was on his thumb, dripping from under the finger-nail, where seemed to be an inflamed, tiny wound. He heard a peculiar, spine-stiffening cackle, on the same penetrating high key as the whistle. First it came spasmodically, but broke down into a low gurgle, a sucking sound. The thief's heart seemed to bloat and swell, yet tried to beat faster; Joe clutched at his hot brow with clammy, weak hands.
Young San Pedro Joe, a short time ago successful light-finger man, fell dead on the kitchen floor. The white light shone on his ill-proportioned, slight body. For a moment, there seemed a slight rustling. A dirty, filth-incrusted window banged open. But all was quiet outside in the hot, choking night air.