Authors: John Bellairs
Johnny hesitated. "Aâa man's, I think. It was kind of hollow and whispery, but it sounded like a man. We didn't see anyone thoughâdid we, Fergie?"
Fergie shook his head. "Nope, we sure didn't."
"Humph!" said the professor, and he wrinkled up his nose in a discontented way. For a long while he was silent. He seemed to be thinking, and he kept turning the snuffbox over and over in his hands. "Well!" he said, at last. "This is all very mysterious, not to mention strange, odd, and peculiar. It might interest you to know, by the way, that Chigwell's Pawn Shop is still in existence. It's down by that old row of leather-working shops on Washington Streetâhas either of you noticed it?"
"Yeah," Fergie put in. "I know where it is. My Uncle Howie pawned the family silverware there once, when he was outa work."
The professor grinned. "How interesting! Now then, gentlemen, what I think we ought to do is this: We should try to use this antiquated ticket to locate the object that was pawned long ago. I realize that there's not much chance of our coming up with anything, but you never know. Would you two like to go down to Chigwell's with me tomorrow morning?"
Fergie and Johnny said yes enthusiastically. Around ten thirty the next morning, the two boys and the professor were standing outside of Chigwell's Pawn Shop. Three golden globes hung from a bracket over the door, and propped up behind the plate-glass display window were two guitars, a saxophone, a velvet-covered board with several antique watches hanging on it, and an old cavalry saber. There was also an enormous meerschaum pipe covered with carved satyrs and nymphs, and a brass-lined wastebasket made from the foot of a rhinoceros. After the three of them had studied the things in the window for a few minutes, the professor coughed loudly and said, "Come along, gentlemen! Time's awasting!" He went into the shop, and Fergie and Johnny followed him.
The owner of the shop was a small, bald, meek-looking man who wore half-moon glasses and an unbuttoned gray-vest. The professor marched straight up to the man, introduced himself, and fished the pawn ticket out of his pocket. When the man saw the ticket, his eyes opened wide.
"Good night!" he exclaimed as he took the piece of paper from the professor's hand. "I never expected to see one of
again! Where on earth did you get it?"
The professor smiled uncomfortably and glanced away. "It's a long storyâI won't bore you with it. To tell the truth, I'm amazed that you recognize the ticket. I know it seems unlikely, but I wonder if it's possible that you still have the object that the ticket belongs to."
The pawnbroker stared hard at the ticket and scratched the side of his nose. "Hmm ..." he muttered. "You know, there is just an outside chance that we might have it. You see, this ticket comes from my grandfather's time, and a few years ago we gave away or sold a lot of stuff left over from the old days. But I saved a few rather curious objects that I just couldn't bear to get rid of. They're in a closet in the back room. Here. Let me go have a look."
The pawnbroker took the ticket and disappeared through a curtained doorway. A few minutes later he came back with an old-fashioned walking stick in his hands. The body of the cane was made of some mottled light-brown wood, and it was capped at the bottom by a tarnished brass ferrule. For a handle the cane had a piece of ivory that was shaped like a long, skinny human hand, and the fingers of the hand clutched an ivory ball. Attached to the handle was an old tattered cardboard tag with the number 896 on it.
"Good grief!" exclaimed the professor. "So
our prize, eh? Well, well!"
"That's it," said the man with a little sigh. He laid the cane on the counter, turned, and plucked a dust rag down from a shelf. As Fergie and Johnny crowded in to stare at the cane, the man began wiping the dust off it. "It's been in that closet back there ever since I can remember," he said. "When I was a kid playing in the back of this shop, I used to take it out and fool around with it, but I always made sure my dad didn't know what I was doing. It's a dangerous thing, you see."
The professor stared at him blankly. "Dangerous? How do you mean?"
The pawnbroker smiled and gripped the ivory handle firmly. He tugged, and out came a thin, springy sword blade.
"Wow!" exclaimed Fergie delightedly. "I've always wanted to have one of those! Can I see it?"
The man handed the sword to Fergie, and he turned it back and forth in the light. Running the whole length of the blade, on both sides, were fancy engraved decorationsâwhorls and squiggles and loopsâthat looked like complicated Boy Scout knots. Fergie tested the edge of the blade with his finger: it was razor-sharp.
"Boy!" said Fergie, grinning wickedly. "You could sure use this to get a seat on the bus, couldn't you?"
The professor winced. "Yes, I suppose you could, Byron," he said. "And you could also use it to get yourself a seat in the county jail. Carrying a concealed weapon is against the law, and that sword cane qualifies as a concealed weapon. Rich gentlemen used to carry them in the old days, when there were no street lights and thugs lurked in every alley." He turned to the pawnbroker and reached into his hip pocket for his wallet. "How much do you want for the thing, eh?"
The pawnbroker shrugged and smiled. "Take itâit's yours. People always think that pawnbrokers are greedy, so I like to prove them wrong sometimes. Anyway, since you found the ticket, I'd say the cane was meant to be yours. Wouldn't you agree?"
The professor was surprised and pleased, and he insisted on giving the man a ten dollar bill. Then he turned to Fergie, who was still fiddling with the sword. "Young Byron is really the one who found the ticket," he said, "and so by rights he ought to have the cane. Doesn't that seem reasonable to you, John?"
Johnny nodded. "Sure. I think Fergie ought to have it."
Fergie grinned appreciatively, but then he seemed to have second thoughts. He frowned and shook his head. "Nah, prof, you oughta take it," he said thoughtfully. "My mom is always worried that I'll turn into a juvenile delinquent, and if she finds out I have a toad sticker like this, she'll think I'm gonna be gettin' a zip gun next. Thanks, but no thanks."
The professor sighed and accepted the gift. After the pawnbroker had wrapped the cane in brown paper and tied it with string, the professor tucked it under his arm, and the three of them left the shop. As they were walking down the street to the professor's car, a battered blue Ford came cruising slowly past. It went round the traffic circle in front of the post office and then came rolling back past the professor's maroon Pontiac. The professor, Johnny, and Fergie were standing by the car discussing the parking ticket that the professor had gotten while they were in the pawn shop. They didn't notice the Ford as it passed them a second time. It rolled down Washington Street, and then turned right onto a bumpy potholed alley that ran between two abandoned factories. The car halted, and the two people inside glanced around to see if anyone was watching them. But the alley was totally empty.
"Are you sure that's the Dixon boy?" asked the driver. She was a burly, bossy-looking old woman with bunchy gray hair, and she wore a white uniform, the kind that nurses in hospitals wear, and steel-rimmed spectacles. Her eyes were hard.
"Yes. That's the little snot, that's him for sure!" said her passenger, a tall old man with a mop of white hair. The skin of the man's face was loose and saggy, and near the end of his long, pointed nose was a wart the size of a pea. The man's eyes were watery and red-rimmed, and sometimes he would glare fiercely this way and that for no reason at all. "It's certainly himâno doubt about it!" the man went on in a clipped voice that sounded vaguely British. "I wish we were ready to take him now, but my project's just not finished. These old hands of mine won't obey their master the way they used to. You don't hold it against me that I'm working so slowly, do you?"
The woman glanced contemptuously at the man, and she seemed to be on the point of saying something nasty. But she forced her mouth into a cold smile. "No, my dearest. I don't mind. If the final result is going to be good, you ought to take all the time that you need. But tell me: Is that little cranky-looking old man the boy's grandfather?"
The man shook his head. "No. Henry Dixon is about as tall as I am. I saw him the other day watering his lawn, and I recognized him immediately." Suddenly the man seemed to be a seized with fierce anger. He clenched his long pale hands on his knees and ground his teeth. "I wish I had him here in this alley," he muttered bitterly. "I'd wring his neck and leave him for dogs to mangle! I hate him! I hate him now more than I did all those years ago. Filthy rotten lying dirt-eatingâ"
"Now, now ..." said the woman soothingly. "You mustn't allow yourself to get too angry. Remember what that doctor told you about your heart! You needn't worry, you'll get your revenge in due time. Meanwhile, I think we might as well go back to my place, and I'll fix us some lunch. Then I'll drive you back up north and you can get to work on our little project again. I'll keep an eye on young Mr. Dixon until we're ready to use him."
The old man said nothing. His face was still red and twisted with rage, and he went on clawing at his knees. After a quick glance at him, the woman shrugged and started the car.
Time passed. It was the middle of July, and the days were blazing hot. Fergie and Johnny played chess and drank iced tea by the gallon, and they went to movies and gobbled hot fudge sundaes at Peter's Sweet Shop. Sometimes, when they were sitting on the Dixons' front porch on a warm evening, they talked about the snuffbox and the sword cane. Both these things had come to them in a very mysterious way, and they wanted to know who the owner had been. The professor had gone over the box and the cane with a magnifying glass, but he did not find any initials or other identifying marks. He had also called up Mr. Chigwell, but he had not been any help either. He explained that his grandfather had never kept any record of the names of people who pawned things at his shop. The professor remarked that the owner had probably been a man, because snuffboxes and canes were carried around by men in the old days. But beyond that, they knew absolutely nothing.
As the month wore on, Johnny began to get the odd feeling that he was being watched. Every now and then he would be walking up Fillmore Street, and an old blue Ford would come cruising past. Johnny knew that there was more than one blue Ford in the world, but this one had a dented right fender and a missing hubcap. He had seen it downtown on Merrimack Street and in other places. It always seemed to be disappearing around a corner as he turned to look. Johnny knew that he sometimes imagined things, and at first he told himself that he was being silly. But then other odd things began to happen: the phone would ring late at night, and when Johnny got up and ran downstairs to answer it, he would hear nothing but a dial tone at the other end. And twice he had letters mailed to him with blank pieces of paper inside. Naturally, there wasn't a return address on the envelope either time. When Johnny told Fergie about these weird occurrences, Fergie seemed thoroughly unconcerned.
"It's just some nut havin' himself a good time," he said nonchalantly. "There's crazies everywhere, an' most of 'em don't hurt anybodyâthat's what my dad says, anyway."
"Yeah?" Johnny grumbled. "Well, it's not your dad who's getting followed around. What if it's some guy that wants to kidnap me?"
Fergie laughed loudly. "Kidnap you? Good God, Dixon, are you batty? Your gramma and grampa have got about twelve dollars and three cents and a Canadian nickel in the bank."
"Yeah, but my dad has some money," said Johnny stubbornly. Johnny's father was a career officer in the Air Force. Johnny did not get to see him often, but they wrote letters to each other.
Johnny and Fergie argued some more, but Fergie was hard to convince, and he absolutely refused to believe that Johnny was in any kind of danger. Several days passed, and Johnny did not see any blue Fords or get any mysterious midnight phone calls. He decidedâreluctantly
that Fergie was right, and he tried to put his nagging fears behind him. Nothing bad could possibly happen.
August came, and with it, muggy weather and thunderstorms. One rainy night, Johnny sat up late reading and listening to "The Voice of Firestone Hour," a musical program that he liked. On the table near his chair was a plate of crackers spread with pimiento-flavored cream cheese, and now and then Johnny would pause in his reading to grab a cracker and stuff it into his mouth. Rain rattled against the bay window, and thunder muttered and grumbled in the distance. As he turned the pages, Johnny began to realize that he was not paying attention to the story he was reading. Was he bored or just sleepy? He really couldn't tell which. The Sessions clock in the dining room whanged eleven times, and Johnny closed the book. He found that he was thinking about the mysterious snuffbox, which was up in his room. Johnny had been examining it earlier in the day to see if maybe there was some sliding panel on its bottom that would reveal a secret hiding place. But there were no secrets to be foundâit was just an empty box. Why did the stupid box fascinate him so much? He had no idea why. Johnny realized that he was getting sleepy. With a sigh, he reached over and turned off the radio and hauled himself to his feet.
When he got to his room, Johnny reached in past the door frame and flipped the light switch, but at that instant there was a horrendous crash of thunder. The lights in the room and the hallway flickered and went out.
"Phooey!" said Johnny. He hated it when the power went out. He could not see very well in the dark, but he groped his way into the room, and his fingers found the old nickel-plated flashlight on top of his bureau. Switching it on, he propped it up with a book so the beam pointed toward him, and then he sat down on the bed and started taking off his shoes. As he undressed, Johnny wondered what had happened to the power. Had a tree limb fallen on a line, or had a car skidded on the wet pavement and rammed a utility pole? Then he wondered if the food in the refrigerator would spoil if the power was off all night. Entertaining himself with thoughts like these, Johnny got his clothes off and put on his pajamas. But just as he was turning to pull down the bedspread, he froze. Out of the corner of his eye he had seen something.