Authors: John Bellairs
There was a figure crouching on the porch roof outside his bedroom window.
An icy breath of fear blew over Johnny's body. In a flash he knew that the creature was someone who shouldn't be there, someone who
e thereâit was a visitor from another world. Slowly, Johnny turned to face the thing. The flashlight's beam cast a ghostly sheen on the window, and beyond the glass Johnny saw a fearfully thin shape shuffling forward on his knees. As Johnny watched, rigid with terror, the shadowy form groped at the window... and then Johnny blacked out, and he fell in a heap on the floor.
When Johnny woke up, rain was blowing in through the half-open window. Cold drops tickled his face and made him sit up and shake his head violently. Quickly he glanced to his rightâthe figure was gone. Dragging himself to his feet, Johnny tottered over to the bureau. He began groping with his hands, and at that instant the lights came back on. Johnny blinked and stared. The thing he had been looking forâthe snuffboxâwas gone.
He came back for it,
It was his, and he took it.
Johnny didn't know who
was, but he was sure that the shadowy man had come for the snuffbox. He had read somewhere that ghosts could use talismans or magic objects when they wanted to appear to people and warn them about dangers, or do good deeds for them. But once the ghost's mission was accomplished, the talisman had to be returned to the dark void, to the place it had come from. These ghostly rules seemed strange to Johnny, but they made a crazy kind of sense.
Wearily Johnny sat down on the bed, and he tried hard to think. He had an overpowering urge to call up the professor, but he knew how the professor hated being awakened out of a sound sleep, so he resisted the urge. Pounding his forehead with his hand, Johnny forced himself to think: the snuffbox had been sent, and it had been taken away. But why? Apparently the box wasn't important, but the pawn ticket was. So the ghostâor whatever it wasâhad meant for them to have the sword cane. But what were they supposed to do with it? Stab somebody? Threaten somebody? But who? At this point Johnny's reasoning ran into a stone wall. Then he thought about the blue Ford and the mysterious phone calls. What did they have to do with anything? Johnny pressed his hands to his face, and his head began to throbâall this thinking had gotten him a roaring headache. Wearily, Johnny dragged himself to his feet, and then he went out of the room and down the hall to the bathroom. He took two aspirin tablets and washed them down with a glass of water. He stumbled back to his bed and fell into a dead, dreamless sleep.
The next morning, after breakfast, Johnny decided that he had better go across the street and have a talk with the professor. By now, Johnny was used to bursting in on the professor at any hour of the day or night, so he just trotted up the steps and walked in the front door. He found the professor in the kitchen, having an after-breakfast cigarette and reading the newspaper. As soon as he saw Johnny, the old man put down his newspaper and sat back in his chair, waiting. He knew from the expression on Johnny's face that he had something important to tell him.
"So, John Michael," said the professor cheerfully, "what's on your mind besides hair? Eh?"
Johnny smiled in a sickly way and sank into a chair across the table from the professor. Slowly and hesitantly, with lots of hemming and hawing, he told about the ghost he had seen last night. For good measure, he threw in the tale of the blue Ford and the midnight phone calls. He had not told the professor about these last two things until now, because he had been afraid of being laughed at. It was bad enough to have Fergie razzing him.
When Johnny had finished talking, the professor took his cigarette out of his mouth and thoughtfully ground it out in the remains of the fried egg on his plate. Then he picked up his fork and began stirring the cigarette and the egg together, and as he stirred he talked. "Hmm," said the professor. "John, I hate to say this, but I think you're spooked by a car that you see occasionally, and by some nut who likes to call people up in the middle of the night. It's normal for people to be afraid that they are being followed or persecuted by sinister typesâI've had this feeling myself a few times, and each time it's turned out to be my imagination working overtime." The professor paused and pointed his eggy fork at Johnny.
he said, "that thing you saw outside your window was
a product of your imagination. We are dealing with a missioned spirit, a ghost that has come back because there is something it wants us to do. The problem is, we still don't know what the stupid nincompoop of a ghost wants! I think you're right about the snuffbox: it was given to us so we could use the pawn ticket to get the cane. All rightâwe have the cane. It's out in the umbrella rack in my front hall. Fine. Dandy. But what are we supposed to do with it? Run around sticking people with the sword, until the ghost stops showing up? I'm afraid the ghost just hasn't made its intentions very clear. I've done everything I could, including taking the cane down to the hospital to have the ivory handle X-rayed, just to see if there's anything hidden inside. Well, there isn'tâit's solid ivory. So for the time being, I think we'd better try to forget the whole peculiar business and hope that the spirit will go bother somebody else for a change. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"Uh-huh," said Johnny in a weak, throaty voice. He had expected the professor to have something more helpful to say, and he was feeling disappointed. The professor gave Johnny a searching glance, and he read his thoughts.
"Oh come on, John!" he said, shoving back his chair and standing up suddenly. "Cheer up! It's a nice, filthy hot day in August, and the temperature probably won't get any higher than one hundred and two degrees. So forget your troubles and join me in a nice after-breakfast snack of lemonade and fudge brownies. What d'ye say? Eh?"
The rest of August passed, and Labor Day arrived. The professor had a big cookout in his backyard to mark the holiday, and two days later Johnny went back to school. Soon he was all wrapped up in important matters, like the square of the hypotenuse and the fourth principal part of the Latin verb
The blue Ford and the ghostly midnight visitor faded into the back of Johnny's mind, and his life began to glide along on a fairly even keel. But sometimes, when he was alone in the front hallway of the professor's house, he would take the sword cane out of the umbrella rack and draw the thin, tarnished blade. Then he would mutter
or "Have at thee, recreant!" and pretend that he was the Count of Monte Cristo or D'Artagnan and lunge and thrust at imaginary enemies. With a sigh, he would put the sword cane back and wonderâfor the five hundredth timeâif he would ever know why the ghost had given him this sword. Or had the sword been meant for Fergie? Or the professor? The whole business was so crazy, so nonsensical. Why come back from the dead to give a gift, if nobody knew what the gift was for? As the days of September passed, these questions faded further and further into the back of Johnny's mind, and he began to think that the answers really didn't matter much at all.
One day late in September, Johnny and Fergie were walking home from school together. They were gossiping about their teachers and crabbing about their homework assignments, the way kids often do. As they turned onto Fillmore Street, where Johnny lived, they noticed that about half the leaves were off the trees. In the air hung the smell of burning leaves, but there was another smell too. Johnny's nostrils twitched as he sniffed the odd aroma and tried to figure out what it was.
"That's a funny smell," he said as he glanced around curiously.
Suddenly Fergie lifted his hand and pointed. "Look!
what it is!"
A short way down the street stood the professor's gray stucco house. The professor stood in the driveway burning notebooks and papers. A heap of them was smoldering near his feet and sending up clouds of thick, whitish smoke. The professor reached into the cardboard box he was holding and pitched another fistful of white and blue sheets into the flames. As they drew closer, the boys could see that the expression on the professor's face was unbelievably crabby, and they wondered what had come over him. An odd thought flashed into Johnny's mind: He had often heard the professor say that he would rather burn his students' papers than read them. Maybe at last he had given in to an overwhelming urge. Or perhaps his mind had cracked under the strain of too much teachingâeither way, it didn't look good.
With Fergie leading the way, the two boys crossed the street and headed for the gray stucco house. When the professor saw them, he turned and glowered.
he said fiercely through clenched teeth.
"Hi, prof!" said Fergie, waving cheerfully. He paused and glanced at the box that the professor held in his arms. Then he coughed and forced himself to smile. "Uh... whatcha doin'? Huh?"
The professor grimaced and shook a bunch of papers in Fergie's face. "What does it
like I'm doing? I'm cleaning out the back room of my study, something that has needed doing for ages. And if you must know, I'm doing this so I won't do something more unpleasant, like throw rocks through my neighbors' windows. The fact is, you see, that I've gotten some bad news."
Johnny's hand flew to his mouth. "Oh, no! What?"
The professor put the box down on the ground, reached into his hip pocket, and pulled out a folded piece of letter paper. "Here," he said, handing the paper to Johnny. "You can read the rotten news for yourself."
With a puzzled expression on his face, Johnny unfolded the note. At the top was an official-looking letterhead that said
M-T Oil Co. San Antonio, Texas.
Beneath this was a brief note:
To All Stockholders:
M-T Oil Co. regrets that it will be unable to pay any dividends on its stocks until further notice.
T. Branwell Biggs
Chairman of the Board
Johnny gave the professor a puzzled look. "In case you're wondering," growled the professor as he threw more papers onto the fire, "that little message means
We are failing. We are about to go bankrupt.
And ten thousand dollars of my money is going to go bye-bye along with the M-T Oil Company."
Johnny was alarmed. "Is... is that all the money you had saved up, professor?"
The professor smiled sourly. "No," he snapped, "but it's a fairly large chunk of it. Up until just recently, I had all my savings in nice, safe securities and bonds. But then I had lunch with this lawyer I know, and he told me that M-T Oil was going to make a major oil strike in the near future, and that I could really clean up if I invested in their stock. Normally, I don't play the stock market, but... well, I had this crazy idea that I would make a big wad and then give some to your grandparents, so they wouldn't be so poor. Great plan, wasn't it?"
Johnny was shocked, and his eyes filled with tears. It was true that his gramma and grampa didn't have much money, but his dad would have helped them out if they had gotten into any real financial trouble. He wished that he had told the professor this. Then maybe he wouldn't have ...
"Don't worry, prof!" said Fergie cheerfully. "They'll probably come up with a gusher, an' then you'll really be in the chips!"
"Fat chance," muttered the professor. Suddenly the professor remembered something. He dug his watch out of his pocket and squinted at it. "However," he said, grinning, "things are not all that bad. In two minutes I have an ooey-gooey chocolate cake coming out of the oven, and I'm going to cover it with great globs of my buttery dark mocha frosting. And if you two are
good, you can help me eat some of it. Okay?"
A few minutes later, Fergie and Johnny were sitting at the round oak table in the professor's kitchen. Their mouths were smeared with frosting, and they were attacking huge pieces of cake with their forks. The professor was over by the sink, pouring iced tea into three tall glasses filled with ice cubes. On the drainboard near the glasses was a folded newspaper, and every now and then the professor would peer owlishly at it. Suddenly he let out a loud exclamation.
"Good grief!" he said in an annoyed voice. "The paper says that Cliff Bullard of the Yankees is going to be at the athletic field in Duston Heights on October 15th. Remember the ten thousand smackeroos he's offering to any local boy who can strike him out? Oh, boy! Wouldn't I just
to see some big strong kid collect that loot and make Bullard look like the idiot that he is! I tell you, I would drive
to see ..."
The professor's voice trailed off, and he smiled strangely. A weird and wonderful idea had come floating into his head. Humming quietly, he put the three iced tea glasses on a tray and carried them over to the table. Then he sat down and cut himself a big piece of cake. Johnny and Fergie watched him like hawksâthey knew that something was up.
"Okay, prof, what's on your mind?" asked Fergie. "Whenever you get some hotshot idea, you start actin' strange. So come on! Tell us!"
The professor paused with his fork halfway to his mouth. He looked at the two boys uncertainly, as if he really wasn't sure of what he wanted to say. "I know you two will razz me and tell me this is a totally batty idea," he began, "but I was wondering if... well, if I could humiliate Cliff Bullard and get back the ten thousand smackers I lost in the stock market at the same time."
Johnny stared. "How the heck could you do that, professor?"
The professor smiled mysteriously. He ate a bite of cake and chewed it slowly. "Easy," he said at last. "All we have to do is find Evaristus Sloane's robot."
Johnny's mouth dropped open, and so did Fergie's. The professor had caught them completely off-guard.
There was an awkward silence. The professor gobbled some more cake and wiped his mouth with his napkin. "You boys think I've flipped my wig, don't you?" he snapped. "Well, I'm as sane as anyone in this room, and I think that the robot still exists. It's probably rusting to pieces in some barn up in New Hampshire, but I'll bet it could be put back together. We could fix the motor and have something that could zip baseballs in at one hundred and ten miles an hour! Bullard would screw himself into the ground trying to hit those pitches!"