The Box

“Dad’s dead and this shows up out of the blue…”

Derek’s father’s funeral was over. The postman had just left. An open package sat on the kitchen table. There was no return address, just grandfather’s name printed on the upper left corner. KARL DIETRICH. A wooden box with metal hinges was nestled inside the cardboard box. It was turning dark with the passage of time and its surface smelled like old motor oil. “MEMENTOS” was scratched into the weather-beaten wood of the box lid, barely visible under the fuzz of greasy dust.

Derek sipped his coffee and looked at it. He’d never even met his grandfather, and all that was left of the man was in this old wooden box on his kitchen table. He wasn’t even sure how he felt about it being sent to him. After all, dad had been pretty damn closed mouthed about his father, and grandfather had never been known to visit the family.

Derek lifted the box out of the package and set it on the table. He pressed the opening mechanism, but it didn’t budge. He rattled it with his fingers. It didn’t open. He ran his hands over the old box’s surface. A small key was taped to its back, the tape absurdly fresh on the old dusty surface. It opened with little effort, the mechanism well oiled.

Inside was a small tin box that rattled. He opened it. An assortment of medals slid around inside. Disintegrating ribbons hid parts of them. He set it aside, revealing a book underneath. He picked it up. It was written in German script. He opened its cover and leafed in a couple of pages. Even in script, he recognized the title of it. Mein Kampf. Beneath the title, was a signature. He blinked and looked again. If his eyes weren’t deceiving him, it was signed by Adolf Hitler himself. Shaking his head in disbelief, he put the book back on the table, his gaze falling back to the box’s interior.

In the bottom of the box was a small, black suede pouch, a faded, red silk coin purse with a drawstring, and a gold metal cigarette case. He opened the red silk purse and peered inside. There were a dozen coins of several denominations, both pre-war and Reich minted. He plunked it on the table, then he picked up the black suede bag. Small prisms of light winked at him from the bag’s depths. He shook its contents out into his palm. Diamonds flashed their liquid fire as they spilled out of their velvet-lined suede prison. The dusty fuzz of rotting velvet couldn’t dim their fire.

“Oh my God!” Derek said.

He allowed them to spill onto the table because they didn’t all fit in his palm. He counted them. There were one hundred perfectly clear stones, ranging from one to five karats. He couldn’t imagine where they had come from. Were they family heirlooms, stolen, or did they have more sinister origins? He carefully put them back into the pouch and closed it tightly, a chill running through him at the thought.

He picked up the cigarette case and ran his forefinger over the etching of the Reich eagle that held a wreath in its claws with the tilted swastika in its center. He turned it over in his hands, wondering if it was real gold. It felt good in his hand. He shrugged and packed everything back into the wooden box, still thinking about the diamonds and their origins.

“I’ll have to ask a museum how much this stuff is worth,” he mumbled to himself.

Derek picked up the box and shuffled upstairs. The grandfather clock downstairs in the living room bonged, echoing through the silent house. It was so quiet. The television downstairs wasn’t blaring with one of Dad’s game shows and the delicious cooking smells from the kitchen were absent and already becoming distant memories.

He sighed and plunked the wooden box down in the middle of the bed in his old room. He stretched out on the bed. The blocky four poster was out of place in the room he’d spent his childhood in. In a couple of places, the wallpaper was peeling and exposing old paint with rockets and stars on it. On the doorframe were marks cut into the wood and numbers carved next to them. Dad had marked his growth since he was old enough to walk. He closed his eyes for a moment, breathing in the smell of the room. The slightly vanilla, almost old book smell of the aging wallpaper, the lemon oil his dad used to polish the wood of the bedposts and window sills, the scent of softener already fading from the comforter on the bed. They were all smells that reminded him of his father’s love and the little things that he did to show he cared.

“Oh, damn!” He turned over and buried his tears in the pillow. “First Mom, and now you, too!” He wept long and hard. Thirty-Five years old, and here he was, crying like a damned baby. “I miss you, Dad.” His mind drifted, still full of the ache of his father’s loss and with the mysterious box still on his mind.

“Verstehen Sie?”

“What?” His mind swam to consciousness slowly.

This time he understood the words, but didn’t understand how.

“Do you understand?”


     “Wo sind deine papiere?”

“My papers…?” The darkness before his vision cleared.

A man stood in front of him. He wore a grey uniform and cap and was holding a gloved hand out toward Derek. His face was red with agitation and his voice was sharp and angry.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean…”

“You must have identification papers if you wish to board the train! If you do not present them, I will call the Oberstürmbannführer!”

“Ach…es tut mir Leid.” Ah, I’m sorry. Derek reached inside his coat, wondering how he knew and could speak German. He pulled out papers stamped with the Reich eagle. He pushed them into the officer’s hand.

“I think these are what you are looking for,” he said.

The officer took them suspiciously. His eyes scanned them, then he searched Derek’s face with stony eyes for a lie. He harrumphed, then handed them back.  “Alle ist in Ordnung… You may go!”

Derek pushed the papers hurriedly back into the inside pocket of his great coat and boarded the train. He could feel the guard’s eyes boring into the space between his shoulder blades. The spot itched insanely. The train car door shut and he leaned against the frame, shivering like a winded horse. Why was he here?  What was going on? His reflection in the passenger car window was white and haunted. A dueling scar slashed his face from above his left eye to his chin. The eyes that looked back at him were the cold, grey blue of the Baltic Sea. He wore a tailored suit beneath the great coat and leather gloves on his hands. His hair was three or four shades blonder than his own, ash blond rather than dishwater, and the cheekbones were more pronounced. It was an Aryan face. A chill went through him. It was him, yet it was the face of a stranger.

From an inside pocket, he pulled out a gold cigarette case and lit a cigarette. He pulled the smoke into his lungs and let it back out shakily. He’s quit smoking five years ago, but this felt fine. Restlessly, he turned the case over and over in his hand, his fingers moving over the etching, tracing the circle of the wreath over and over.

. . .

He woke to dog food breath and a wet tongue. He pushed Bailey’s large, shaggy head away. “Ick! Yuck! Dog germs! “What are you doing up here, anyway? Not supposed to jumping up with your bad hips, ya big doofus!” His dad’s old dog must have crawled into bed with him after he passed out. The dog looked at him and whined, flicking his large ears back and forth. He jumped off of the bed and crept out of the bedroom, whining. Derek heard the clicking of the dog’s nails as he went downstairs.

He felt something in his hand. Frowning, he clicked on the lamp and looked to see what he held. Gooseflesh crept up and down his arms and ruffled his neck hairs. It was the cigarette case from the box. He turned it over in his hand, knowing that he’d put it away. Lifting the lid, he tossed it back in. He absently scratched at his palm, staring at the box for a long moment. He closed it and wiped his palm on his jeans, somehow feeling as if the gold case was greasy or dirty, despite its mellow gleam.

He went downstairs, jumping slightly as Bailey shoulder-bumped him, reminding Derek to fill his dish. He reached down and petted him. Bailey groaned and wagged his tail, then went and scratched at the back door, wanting into the back yard. Derek let him out and shuffled to the recliner to eat and watch T.V.

He still felt tired. He’d never slept so much in his life as he had the last week. Maybe it was the stress of the funeral. There had never really been a lot of family gatherings. Derek really only remembered some of Mom’s family. But neither side had spoken about Grandfather. In fact, now that he thought about it, they’d been downright evasive. He ate slowly, feeling sleepy again as he half-watched the police procedural on the screen. “ZZzzzznark!” He jerked awake for a moment, sighed…then his chin fell to his chest. He began snoring lightly.

.   .   .

He back-handed the man kneeling on the floor. Blood flew and spattered on the wall beside them. “Derek” put the diamond pouch in the inside pocket of his greatcoat, then struck the man again.

“Nein! Nein” the man choked, “Bitte…” The words were muffled by his torn mouth. The orbit of the man’s left eye was shattered, as were both cheekbones. “No more, please…”

“You were going to take my diamonds over the border, weren’t you?” Derek snarled. “Did you think you could make a little profit at my expense?”

“Nein!” The man began, “I swear it, no!” He raised his hands to defend himself, crying out in a terrified voice.

The wolf’s head walking stick rose and fell, rose and fell. In a few moments, the man lay on the floor, unmoving. A pool of blood widened around the fallen man’s head and neck. Derek smiled, and pulled on a pair of black kidskin gloves. He cracked his knuckles and opened and closed his hands a few times and rolled his head, shrugging his shoulders to loosen them. As he raised his hand to tug his lapels straight and straighten his cap, a railroad porter hurried to him, asking what was wrong. Snorting his annoyance at being disturbed in his reverie, he turned to face the invader.

“Can I help you? What has happened?” the porter asked.

Ja,” Derek snapped. “You can help. Get rid of this refuse…” Derek waved a hand at the still form on the floor and began to wipe his walking stick clean of blood with a handkerchief. The porter began to drag the bleeding body away, glancing fearfully back at him over his shoulder. Derek stared at him and said, “You will say nothing, ja?”

Nein, Herr Dietrich…Not a word.”

Gut. Silence is the best answer for many things.” Derek tucked the handkerchief away, then took the gold cigarette case out of the breast pocket of his uniform. He clicked it open, took out a cigarette, and then snapped it closed again. He packed the tobacco by tapping it on the outside of the case three times, then lit it, drawing on it in pleasure.

After smoking it to a nub, he walked to the dining car and sat down by the window. He watched the snow-covered land slide by as the train steamed toward Berlin. Derek ordered wine and sat back sipping it slowly, savoring the subtle peach and floral flavors of an excellent Riesling. He hummed a tune from “Der Fledermaus”. He smiled. Violence cleared his head wonderfully.

.   .   .

Derek woke gasping. “Jesus God! I killed him and I liked it!”

Shaking, he moved to cover his eyes with his hands. His elbow brushed something and it clattered to the floor, light winking on its surface as it spun into the shadow of the corner by the grandfather clock. I know I put that damned thing in the box! He thought, looking at where it had disappeared with sudden loathing. “What’s happening?” he muttered. “Just what the actual fuck is going on here?

In the back yard, Bailey began to howl as if his heart would break. Only pausing to draw breath between agonizing wails. A deep cold began to bleed through Derek’s veins, he fought to keep his teeth from chattering. A figure seemed to draw itself from the shadows of the room. It was a tall, lean man with ash blond hair and a dueling scar that flashed livid down his face in the light of the television. His black uniform seemed made of the darkness surrounding him. In his hands was the gold cigarette case. As Derek watched, he opened it, lit a cigarette and clicked it closed. His movements were graceful. Sinister.

The man turned his head to look at Derek and smiled. “You do not wish to meet your Grandpapa? I have very much wished to meet you,” His smile was the edge of a straight razor. “You see, I was dying. I searched for a way to live forever. Mein Fuhrer had an interest in the Occult and many other strange things, and with research, I found a way to bind my soul to a common object after my death. This cigarette case has served for a time until I could find a living vessel for my spirit. My wife left long ago and took my first choice with her. But, your father was kind enough to provide me one after all. No mere stranger would do. It had to be a close relative.” He cocked his head and looked more closely at Derek, “I must say that I like you more. You look more like me than your father ever did.”

“Don’t touch me…” Derek tried to say, but he couldn’t find the breath.

Karl Dietrich’s eyes were the cold, dark blue of the quarries that Derek had swum in as a kid. They were calm and placidly beautiful on the surface, but were deep and drowning, full of crags and sunken deadfalls. Derek couldn’t move. The deadly cold spilled through him and wrapped itself around his heart. He was drowning. Drowning.