The Box Hunters
Prolog: The Wizards
There was a discreet, almost apologetic quality to the knock, as if the person seeking admittance hesitated to intrude upon so solemn an occasion. The mausoleum door opened silently and two men entered. They were of such disparate composition that a genetic engineer with the resources of an advanced technology could not have created them with greater dissimilarity.
The newcomers crept into the chapel. Their feet were bare and made not the slightest sound on the thick, somber carpet. The first man was seven feet tall. He was bald, bony and stooped. In a way, he resembled a willow with its drooping branches.
The second man barely reached to the first man's waist and was, as near as could be determined by the suit he wore, perfectly spherical. A human exclamation point and a period.
The exclamation point gave an impression of being featureless, as if his face had been massaged with an eraser. The nose, if ever one existed, must have been frightened by the vertiginous distance to the floor and retreated into the safety of his skull.
The short man, evidently a subordinate, carried a soaring beaver hat belonging to his companion in a manner reminiscent of a native bearer carrying an elephant gun on safari. The hat belonged to another era. Its loftiness was exceeded only by the antiquity of its manufacture.
Neither of the men appeared to have eyes. The subdued funerary lighting introduced patches of blackness into the cavities normally occupied by instruments of sight. They reached the chapel organ and stopped.
The organist, who was only moderately obese, stopped perusing a sheet of music, adjusted his spectacles, and glared at them. His hands had left the keyboard when the two had knocked. In the interval between when they entered and the time they reached him, the heavy notes of a dirge he was practicing dwindled into a reluctant, almost antagonistic thunder and then faded into nothingness. His bulk created a fleeting impression of coarseness, but the suit he wore proclaimed discernment, and his motions, when he rose, were polished and elegant. He also had a partner.
The fat man's associate was diminutive. He resembled a doll ... or a ventriloquist's dummy. Both men were formally attired in striped trousers suitable for a diplomatic function or a funeral. Dazzling white shirts surveyed the flower-bedecked chapel from behind the lapels of swallowtail coats. Both wore carnations that somehow managed to remain conspicuous in the sea of flowers around them. The clothes made the little man look like an ambassador from some Lilliputian republic. They made the fat man look like a mattress.
Candles cast eerie, wavering shadows and the silhouettes of cut flowers danced on the walls and ceiling in response to barely noticeable breezes. The chapel was laid out to receive a casket. A dignified placard beside the empty dais proclaimed: "Conroy C. Bandholtz, Lcdr.,USN, Ret." If the date on the placard was correct, Lcdr. Bandholtz had marched into this vale of tears on March 21st of 1844. He departed on April 11th of 1914. Requiescat in Pace.
No words were exchanged. The fat man abandoned the organ to confront the visitors. The silence could not have been more intense in a vacuum. That something momentous was near to occurrence became evident in their tense, expectant attitudes. The newcomers positioned themselves near a floral arrangement. The human period set the tall hat on the floor and went through the ritualistic motions of wiping nonexistent perspiration from his forehead with a handkerchief large enough to have been flown as a flag. But he did not perspire, for he had died fifty years ago. The doll assumed a vigil beside the door.
Fifteen minutes passed and instinct, or perhaps a finely developed sense of timing, made him open it again. A procession of six figures uniformed as World War I doughboys and bearing a casket waited in the anteroom outside the chapel. A seventh World War I soldier, in the uniform and insignia of an officer, stood with his hand arrested in midair.
Instead of a knock, the officer delivered a salute.
The coffin was covered with a large American flag. The doll beckoned the procession to come in with an almost imperceptible motion of his head. He stepped aside and held the door open. While not in uniform himself, he inspected the doughboys critically as they filed in with their burden.
Puttees were tightly wound around spindly legs. A newly disinterred mummy could not have been more professionally wrapped. Sam Brown belts crossed scrawny chests and hooked at pinched waists. The shallow helmets seemed too large, as if someone had playfully inverted wash basins on their heads. Candlelight illuminating the chapel made their faces shine unnaturally. The soldiers wore white gloves, which were kept from falling off by turns of white cord around their wrists.
They set their burden upon the waiting dais without directions, as if previously rehearsed.
The squad leader made a motion with his hand, and the doughboys fell into parade rest at either end of the coffin. No one spoke, cleared his throat, shuffled his feet, or otherwise made a sound.
The human period picked up the beaver hat and offered it to his lofty superior. Groping in the hat, the exclamation point located a soft cloth. One of his hands fumbled in an inner pocket of the ragged suit he wore until it produced an artist's brush and a long, thin box of watercolors.
Then, with the cloth, he went from soldier to soldier, beginning with the officer, and performed a wiping operation on every face. For a few minutes, every soldier was as featureless as a newly laid egg. Then the exclamation point surrendered the watercolors to his short, rotund partner.
"Your turn, Mr. Ransome." Mr. Ransome nodded gravely and with the precision of long experience painted an expression of resigned sorrow on each soldier's face. The doll said, "That's very good, Mr. Ransome ... very lifelike ... if I may be permitted to use the word." The period agreed. Without lips, he was unable to smile and theoretically should have been unable to speak. Nonetheless, the words were perfectly understandable, though the voice sounded like an echo from the bottom of a deep well.
"I endeavor to give satisfaction, Mr. Brown."
His words broke the tension. The organist's voice betrayed a barely suppressed excitement, an excitement born of jubilation.
"This is a great moment, Mr. Brown. A very great moment indeed."
The doll said, "But it isn't the great moment, Mr. Chain. Not the moment we've striven so patiently for and waited six long years toward."
The organist agreed. "No! Not the great moment, that is yet to come. Locating General McField has not been as easy as we thought it would be. That young idiot, Captain Fearless, has managed to complicate things at every turn."
Mr. Brown comforted his fat partner. "All things come to those who wait, Captain Fearless notwithstanding. It's a matter of acting decisively at the proper time."
Mr. Chain snorted. "Captain Fearless!" The name was spoken as if inadvertently he'd sampled a viral strain of exquisite repulsiveness. His left hand began a motion independently of his will.
Mr. Brown seized the hand before the motion was completed. "Not now, Morgan. We must not embark on a thaumaturgical duel except as a last resort." He added, "Be not downhearted, old comrade. The captain has youth and energy on his side, but we are steeped in wisdom and experience. Ultimately, we shall prevail."
"That young nincompoop claiming that General McField is his personal property by reason of family association ... bah!"
"His claim will never stand up in court."
The thought made Mr. Chain glow. "Then ours will be the finest collection in the world."
His remark revealed their standing perfectly: They were hobbyists. Mr. Boes and Ransome, the exclamation point and the period, waited patiently by the coffin. Mr. Brown nodded his permission. Gently, the very tall man raised the casket lid. Four heads bent forward expectantly. A chorus of gasps was followed by an outraged silence that was ultimate in its intensity. The coffin was empty. On close examination, however, it was revealed to be not entirely empty. Mr. Chain removed a pair of tiny silver bars pinned to the casket lining.
"Captain Fearless has struck again," he announced, almost in disbelief.
"Despite our most meticulous precautions," Mr. Brown added.
Outside, in the unkempt jungle surrounding the chapel, a caped figure leapt down from the outstretched branch of a towering old pine. The limb was at least fifty feet above ground. A long, stiff burden should have hampered the lightning-like movements, but appeared to cause not the slightest inconvenience. The caped figure handled it with ease and dexterity, as if the bundle was weightless. He threw his head back in a seeming confrontation with the moon. A mocking laugh punctuated each of his hundred-foot bounds.