Free Short Story: The Damned Box

Monday 10 April 2017

 I'm sharing the following short story for two reasons.  

First, and most importantly, it's a thank you to everyone who bought a copy of Raven and Skull.  I'm thrilled that so many of you enjoyed the book, delighted so many of you have taken time to share glowing reviews on Amazon, and this story is my way of saying thanks for taking the time to read and review.   

Second: for those of you haven't yet read Raven and Skull, this story is here to give you a short idea of what my horror writing looks like.  Caffeine Nights are offering a substantially discounted electronic download for a short period and I thought this short story might be a helpful way for potential buyers to decide if they want to read my work or not. 

The Damned Box

By Ashley Lister

“You’re late.”
Scott had known he would be late when he parked his Volvo two hundred feet below. The knowledge had weighed as an additional nuisance on his shoulders as he climbed over prophetic signs warning DANGER and KEEP OUT. He had known he would be late during every arduous step to this meeting atop the derelict bridge. Catching his breath; tightening his grip on the briefcase; finding his feet on the rickety framework of the crossing’s decaying skeleton: he thought of explaining it had taken two years to get to this rendezvous – and an hour’s lateness was nothing in the scheme of such a grand time scale. But those weren’t details the courier needed to know.
“I’m paying good money,” Scott grunted. “I’m entitled to be late.”
The dusty ghosts of passing clouds veiled the sky’s bloated moon. The shiver of a breeze rippled up from the black river far below. Its unearthly sigh whispered through the rusting stanchions beneath their feet and rattled loose chains above their heads.
Neither man moved.
“You have the box?”
“You have the money?”
The courier lurked in shadows as though he were a part of their impenetrable depths. He was a darkened figure on a black background: a silhouette cloaked by the remnants of the bridge’s last crumbling wall. Scott made out broad shoulders and the glint of slitted eyes. His imagination painted the irises blood red. He could see a sliver of silver moonlight winking from the sharp fangs of the box’s hasp. But he could see nothing more.
He clenched his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering.
“Is this going to be like a cold war exchange?” Scott affected a bored tone. He reached into his coat and produced a pack of cigarettes. Lighting one he hoped the smoke might steady his shaking hand and quell the hammering of his heartbeat. “Did you intend for this to be like something from the Berlin Wall, or the Soviet Border? I didn’t come out here for role playing games.”
“Give me my money and you can have your damned box.”
Moonlight flashed angrily on the hasp. It was caused by a movement of the bridge. Or the courier had urged the box toward Scott when he spoke. It couldn’t have been caused by anything else. Scott was sure it couldn’t have been caused by anything else.
“Give me my money and this… this cursed thing… it’s yours.” In a soft undertone, a whisper that was almost as wordless as the wind, the courier added, “It’s a cancer. I’ll be happy to be rid of it.”
An icy finger trailed down Scott’s spine. He turned the collar of his jacket against the chill. He was close to getting the box. Two years of planning and research had led to this moment. Whether he was shivering from cold or terror or simple anticipation he knew the option of backing out was no longer available. There was too much at stake. He drew on his cigarette and tried to make sure there was no way the transaction could go wrong. His mind raced to every eventuality that could cause a problem.
“You’re alone?”
An impatient sigh fluttered from the shadows. “Yes.”
“Are you carrying?”
“I’m carrying this damned box.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“It’s cold,” the courier complained. “Just give me my money and take this… this thing. I don’t have the strength or the patience to argue. I don’t have an army of friends here in the shadows. I don’t have a knife or a gun or any weapon. All I’ve got is this damned box.”
Another sigh.
This time the impatience was tangible.
Scott drew thoughtfully on his cigarette.
“Hurry up and let’s make the transaction,” the courier snapped. “The worst I can threaten you with is negative feedback.”
Scott was surprised to hear himself laugh. It had struck him as absurd when he found the box on eBay. He had first heard about its legend through the age-brittle pages of a mummified ledger. Learning of it from an incidental footnote in a history project; and then becoming amazed that no one had ever publicised the box’s lethal legacy: he traced its origins to the carpentry of Judas Iscariot. From there he meticulously catalogued the graveyard relics of its dark and bloody history. The damned box’s likeness was borne in a fresco at Pompeii. It was reputed to have been in the possession of Attila the Hun, Vlad the Impaler and Ivan the Terrible. It was stolen from the Marquis de Sade’s private collection at La Coste and procured by the nefarious Robespierre. From revolutionary France it went on a circuitous journey of Europe through the hands of Bonaparte, Haig, Lenin and Hitler. Considering the lineage of its previous owners, Scott had thought the box would most likely be found in either the Middle East or Washington DC. He had contacted helpful allies in Northern Ireland, Iran, Iraq, Beirut the Lebanon and Afghanistan as his search went worldwide. But he had never expected to find it while trawling the Buy-It-Now ads on eBay.
“Here’s your money.”
Scott hefted his briefcase and took one step toward the courier’s shadow. The glint on the box’s hasp flashed momentarily brighter, then receded deep into the gloom. Scott dropped the briefcase at the foot of the shadow before retreating a pace.
The chilly wind continued to tug at his jeans and jacket.
The stanchions trembled. The bridge swayed like a drunk leaning over the rail of a yawing boat. His bowels clenched as, for the first time, Scott realised the precariousness of his situation. He was two hundred feet above a midnight river; standing on the treacherous timbers of a derelict bridge; in the company of a stranger; and only inches from the cursed box.
His heart beat so swiftly he yearned to vomit.
“Count it if you want,” Scott told the courier. Unable to see the man, the money or the box, he spoke into shadows and hoped his voice rang with authority. “But let’s get this done quick, shall we? I’m not happy being up here. It’s cold and dangerous.”
“This location was your choice,” the courier reminded him.
Scott could have argued the point. The location had been selected after consultation with two shamans and a collaboration of astrologers, mystics and fakirs. An iron bridge with wooden slats, in the air above a river, was a touchstone to several of the basic elements. The location avoided the magnetic lure of any ley-lines. It was a place of mystic insignificance according to his advisors. One of the few places where he might be protected from the box and its influence.
Without warning the briefcase was sucked into the shadows. A single hand appeared and placed the box where the briefcase had been. Scott was not surprised to see the hand was gloved. He wasn’t even surprised to see the glove was latex – surgical – as though the courier knew he was dealing with something vile, disgusting and potentially infectious. Privately Scott didn’t think a pair of surgical gloves would offer the level of protection that was needed against the evil of the damned box. But he kept that thought contained behind the set of his clenched jaw.
In Scott’s opinion, the most remarkable thing about the box was not the horror and calamity with which it was associated. On an instinctive level he accepted the box was a catalyst for disasters like Vesuvius, the 1931 Yellow River flood and the devastation of Navado Del Ruiz. And he was happy to concede that its malevolent presence had invoked atrocities like Robespierre’s reign of terror, Haig’s genocidal horrors of the Great War, or Hitler’s holocaust. But it was how the box travelled from owner to owner that he found most frightening.
Another shiver rippled down his spine.
Goosebumps covered his arms.
His hands shook as though he was the victim of a minor palsy.
Through his research, Scott had uncovered several diaries and ledgers that all told similar, disquieting stories. The box was invariably acquired as a bequest. The silver inlay on its woodwork was sufficiently ornate to be admired. The decoration ensured the box was coveted, kept and treasured. Usually, the damned box was deemed attractive enough to be prominently displayed by its unfortunate new owner. And, from its position of importance within each unsuspecting household, the damned box was able to oversee all manner of sinister and macabre happenings.
Scott had read of two dozen hauntings – ghastly affairs peopled by the grisliest menaces. He had read of mayhem, misery, malevolence and murder. And all of the stories ended badly. They were tales of terror-induced heart attacks and soul-slitting shifts away from sanity. Some of the diaries simply ended with a final, innocuous entry. Those tomes were frustrating for Scott, even though the incomplete documents shrieked volumes from their blank pages of silence. He had read of ghosts, ghouls, daemons and devils. Succubae, serpents and Satan.
Those who didn’t know guessed at the unknown.
Those who did know were driven insane by the knowledge.
And then the damned box moved on.
Always one step closer to its next goal. Always causing death and destruction. Always moving into the hands of a diabolical champion: someone able to blight the world with new levels of sadism and suffering and torture and torment. In Europe it had been owned by Spain’s Torquemada, Belgium’s King Leopold and Prussia’s Kaiser Wilhelm. In America it had been in Grant’s hands at Gettysburg. It had been in the laboratories of the Manhattan Project.
And now Scott saw it was by the side of his boot.
For an instant he couldn’t move. The box had not just existed for centuries: it had survived two millennia. Admittedly its legacy had been nothing but death and destruction but the fact that it had survived so much history set him momentarily in awe.
A square brick of polished wood decorated with silver. The same silver Judas collected? Wood from Christ’s cross? Stained with His blood? The inlay described disconcerting shapes: a filigree of artistically devilish symbols. He had never suspected it would be so hypnotically attractive. His eye chased the detail through curls and curves into a baphomet and then an udjat. There was a variation on something that looked like Aleister Crowley’s unincursive hexagram. That shape was followed by a trident and a voodoo veve.
Mesmerised, Scott could only stare.
The box had been given to Nathaniel Bedford Forrest when he became a Grand Wizard at Nashville, Tennessee. It had held cigars on Pol Pot’s desk. It had stored letters in Harold Shipman’s Hyde surgery. Scott wondered if it had once been in Pandora’s possession.
And then the hasp drew his eye.
The interlocking teeth of the clasp glistened like a snake’s venomous bite. He didn’t know if it was the sway of the bridge, a trick of the light, or a fault with his vision. But Scott could have sworn the hasp was opening and bearing longer fangs.
He acted on instinct.
Raising one foot he brought his boot down and stamped heavily against the lid of the box. His heel struck with full impact. The bridge beneath him shook with the vigour of the blow. The box remained undamaged by his assault. Unperturbed, Scott lifted his foot and stamped heavily down for a second time.
This time the wood groaned.
The sound was only just audible above the shriek of the bridge’s protesting metalwork. But Scott continued, elated that he might have caused the box some pain.
He stamped again.
“What the hell are you doing?”
The courier’s outraged voice spat from the shadows.
Scott ignored him and continued to lift his foot and drive his boot against the box. Moonlight on the hasp made the silver teeth flash with renewed viciousness. He could see the lid beginning to weaken from the repeated force. A rictus-like grin spread across his lips. His eyes shone with wicked malice as he drove his foot down again and again and again.
“What are you doing?” The courier’s latex-sheathed hand stretched out from the shadows. Clutched Scott’s shoulder. Gripped him tight. “What’s wrong with you?”
“This doesn’t concern you,” Scott grunted. He tried to shrug the hand away. He continued to drive his heel against the buckling lid of the box. Each blow shook the stanchions of the bridge. Each kick sullied the silver inlay. Broke the filigree between a curl and an udjat. Weakened the threat of every veve. Made the wood buckle inward.
“I’ve bought the damned box…” Scott panted.
His heartbeat pounded.
“…I’ve paid for the damned box...”
His jaw was clenched so tight he could taste splintering enamel.
“…you’ve got your money…”
“…and I can do with it…” stamp “…whatever the hell…” stamp “…I want.”
“You’re going to bring the bridge down.” The courier’s hand squeezed Scott’s bicep. The fingers were as tight as the panic in his voice. His breath came out of the shadows: sulphurous and vile. “You’re going to send this bridge crashing into the river. This bridge and us with it.”
Scott raised his gaze and caught sight of demonic red eyes within the shadows. Steeling himself to deliver a final blow he raised his knee and then ploughed his foot into the box. It shattered with the sickening and brittle crunch of a brick on a kitten’s skull.
The hand on his bicep gripped more fiercely.
For the first time since he had begun to destroy the box Scott realised the bridge was swaying ominously.
“Have you finished?” the courier shrieked. He raised his voice to be heard over the tortured scream of protesting stanchions. “Have you finished?”
Scott glanced at the remnants of broken box beneath his boot. He allowed himself to relax. Resisting the urge to use further brutal force, he gently kicked the shards and splinters over the sides of the teetering bridge. They disappeared in the darkness as they cascaded toward the water far below. It was only when he had punted the last pieces into the black river that he let himself relax.
“Now I’m finished,” he told the courier.
The hand slid away from his arm.
The courier said nothing as he retreated back into his shadows. He remained silent as he slunk away to the opposite side of the bridge. Scott watched, relieved to see the silhouette go. He was bewildered that he had managed to complete his personal mission. The realisation that it had been so simple to destroy two thousand years of history left him doubting the accomplishment and he wondered if the whole incident had been nothing more than a figment of his imagination.
An extremely expensive figment of his imagination.
Climbing away from the bridge, climbing down the steep embankment and taking care not to stumble, he sighed with relief when he realised the ordeal of the last two years was now behind him. He had recognised the evil. He had tracked it to its source. And he had thwarted its diabolical plan. The enormity of his success was so great he couldn’t properly grasp the ramifications of all that he had achieved.
Settling behind the wheel of his Volvo, closing the door on the adventure he had just concluded, Scott saw the undamaged damned box sitting on the dashboard.


Final word: I hope you enjoyed the story.  If you did, and you've not yet read Raven and Skull, use the above links to purchase your copy.  And, as a last favour, if you did enjoy the story, please take a moment to share this page with your friends on FaceBook and Twitter.

Thanks for reading x


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