Anthony Monsano stood at the bar, staring at the round, wooden box on the counter. About the size of a hatbox, except Tony knew it was no hat inside this particular box. He would’ve smiled at this thought had a fire not taken the elasticity from his face just six months earlier.
But he was sure as hell smiling on the inside. Not even the fact that his oldest friend, Danny Blaylock, lay in a bloody crumpled mess on the floor next to Tony’s boots could take away the satisfaction at finally having found the box.
Besides, Danny was in good company. All the men who were either dead or dying in the bar (and even some of the women) had fought bravely. And Tony had to respect their conviction in the cause. They had all been willing to die for this prize. And with the exception of Tony and Esmeralda, that’s exactly what they had done.
Where was Esmi anyway? She was so damned quiet. Probably collecting mementos. She was a weird kid, but Tony knew he needed to keep her around.
He returned his attention to the round box on the bar, but still he didn’t touch it. Until today, he had only seen rough sketches of the box, the same sketches currently folded in his coat pocket. And while there had been inconsistencies, this was no doubt the item he had sought for years.
Most seekers agreed that the box dated back over two millennia. Some even speculated that it was carved out of the wood from the cross used to crucify Jesus, with any of the steel parts of the box forged from the spears used by the Roman soldiers. But Tony didn’t buy that. It just didn’t make sense. Especially considering what the box was supposed to contain.
The gargantuan man Tony killed just minutes earlier to get the box had a Norwegian accent, but the script carved into the wood looked closer to Arabic, the symbols closer to Egyptian. The old steel lock on the box was shaped like a skull, a skull that looked like it had taken a severe beating from various implements trying to break into the box over the centuries.
“My God,” he whispered, “the thousands of miles this box has traveled.” He held his fingers just above the box, tracing the air in the shape of the symbols. He longed to touch it. “If you’re done, you can come in now!” he shouted.
A young girl, maybe nine or ten years old, with dark skin and long black hair came through a door marked “Employees Only.” Her white dress was spotless, but her right arm was smeared red and she clutched something that Tony didn’t want to try and identify. She barely glanced at the bodies on the floor. “Did he have it?” Esmeralda asked.
“Of course,” Tony said. “So you can read this writing?”
She nodded, and Tony had to turn away when she slipped the bloody morsel into her mouth. Hopefully he wouldn’t need her around for much longer.
He pulled out the sketches of the box. The more fragile ones, drawn by ancient hands on tissue-thin parchment, had been left in a safe place, but he had copies. He spread them out over the bar. The greatest mystery for Tony had been the fact that each sketch had been missing some little detail, but looking at the box in front of him was like seeing the puzzle completely assembled. So why the inconsistencies? He would’ve furrowed his brow if it weren’t for the scar tissue.
Esmi stepped beside him. “It’s because something new is added to the box with each user,” she said, as if she had read his mind. Tony had long since stopped wondering how she did it.
“So what do we need to do?” he asked.
“You need to think about whether or not you want to do this.”
Not this again, Tony thought. “And after that?” he asked.
“Today, you need to think about it again.”
From the corner of the room, a man groaned. The groan turned to a raspy cough. Then there was silence again.
“Listen, kid,” Tony said. “I didn’t get you out of that South American death camp to get your opinion. You’re here to do a job.”
“If that’s what you want,” Esmi said. She climbed up onto a bar stool. In different circumstances, someone might’ve said it would’ve made a cute picture. She reached out and touched the box. A shiver went through her body, then she began to trace the symbols, leaving little streaks of blood which the wood of the box seemed to absorb. At the same time, she started to sing in a soft, wispy voice. But even with all of his studies, Tony didn’t recognize the words she sang. And yet in a way, he recognized all of them somehow, like it was a mix of every language he had studied.
But the song didn’t last long. Tony only saw her trace twelve of the marks, and then she was done. She stopped singing, took her hand from the box, and turned on the stool to face Tony.
“That’s it?” he asked. He had expected something a little more grandiose. But no sooner had he spoken the words than he heard a heavy click and the bottom of the skull lock swung open. “I can touch it now?”
The girl nodded.
Tony pulled the box over, unhinged the lock and lifted off the lid. He had to stand on the tips of his boots to see inside, but when he did, his face tightened around his lips. Whether it was a smile or a grimace was unclear, and the look in his eyes could’ve been elation or terror. Then he dropped to the floor next to his best friend. Less bloody, but just as dead.
Esmeralda hopped off the barstool, hefted the round box off the bar, and walked out.
* * *