The Granite Key by NS Wikarski

2 Dec

Chapter 7 – Key Issues

Leroy pressed the doorbell several times before the oak double doors swung open to reveal a clean-cut teenager in a suit.

The young man blinked once. He didn’t ask Leroy’s name. He simply motioned the visitor inside. “Come in, Mr. Hunt. Father has been expecting you for sometime now.”

The youth stepped aside to allow Leroy to enter the foyer. It was two stories high, with a single pendant light suspended from the ceiling. The only furniture the room contained was a pair of deacon’s benches facing each other from opposite whitewashed plaster walls. The effect was simple and austere. Like a monastery.

Hunt followed his guide down a long, uncarpeted corridor. Doors on either side were shut. Other than the sound of their footsteps echoing on the stone floor, everything was silent. Eventually the pair turned right at a hallway that intersected the corridor. It too contained row upon row of shut doors. The doors were plain slabs of dark wood with no carving of any kind. They stretched off into the distance with absolute uniformity. It was disorienting, like walking through a hall of mirrors.

“A fella could get lost easy in a place like this,” Leroy observed to his guide.

The teenager smiled stiffly but made no comment.

Eventually they arrived in front of another set of double doors. These opened to reveal a dining room whose dimensions were vast enough to rival a great hall in a medieval castle. Despite the grandiose size of the room, its furnishings were not designed to impress. They were ruthlessly functional.

The trestle table could have served forty guests easily. This evening a smaller party was dining there. At the far end sat Abraham Metcalf in a high-backed armchair. On either side of him were eight children, the boys on one side of the table and the girls across from them. Instead of chairs, the children were seated on rows of benches. The boys were all dressed alike in black pants, white dress shirts and black ties. The girls wore shapeless grey smocks. Aside from the grouping by gender they also appeared to be arranged in age order with the oldest girl and boy sitting closest to Metcalf while the younger ones took the places below. They ranged in age somewhere from early teen to toddler. On the girls’ side of the table, in the place farthest from Abraham sat a woman. She might have been thirty. Her long hair was braided and coiled around her head like a skull cap. She wore a simple gray cotton dress which was covered by a white apron. Though she wore no makeup, she was very pretty. At the moment, she was also very frightened.

Abraham was leaning forward over the table and glaring at one of the younger boys. Unaware that a visitor had entered the room, he continued to address the child. “Silas, I’ve warned you before about this behavior.”

The boy squirmed in his chair, afraid to meet Abraham’s gaze. He was about seven.

“Father, he didn’t mean—” the woman pleaded.

“Silence!” Abraham commanded. “He knows his sin. Look at me, boy!”

The child stared down at the floor.

“I said look at me,” the old man thundered and stood up. He rested his hands on either side of his dinner plate and leaned over the table. “Now, Silas!”

Quaking with fear, the boy complied.

“What is the greatest of all sins?”

“Disobedience,” the boy squeaked.

“What did you say?”

“Disobedience, sir,” this time the voice was louder.

“Disobedience is the greatest of all sins. The first of all sins.” Abraham jabbed his index finger in the air for emphasis.  “It is the reason that the human race lost paradise.”

“Yes, sir,” the boy whispered.

“Do you wish to burn in hell?”

“No, sir.”

“You are risking your immortal soul, boy. Your immortal soul!”

The child gulped but said nothing.

“If I hear one more report of your bad behavior, just one more…,” he paused for effect. “Then I will have no choice but to pronounce judgment.”

The woman across the table was twisting her napkin into knots. Her agonized gaze shifted back and forth from the boy to Abraham.

“Yes, sir,” the boy said meekly. “I understand, sir.”

Somewhat mollified by the child’s abject submission, Abraham sat back down to resume his meal. The other children and the woman took their cue from him. They were about to do likewise when Leroy interjected himself into the scene.

“How y’all doin’ this evening?” he asked pleasantly.

Metcalf looked up in surprise, aware for the first time that he had a visitor. “Mr. Hunt? Who let you in here?”

Leroy pointed behind him to the youth standing timidly in the open doorway. “That nice young feller over there.”

“Y…y…you told us to let you know the m…m…minute Mr. Hunt arrived, sir. I…w…w…would never dream of interrupting your d…d…dinner otherwise.”

Metcalf scowled at the teenager for a moment. “You might at least have announced your presence.”

“S…sorry, sir. I didn’t want to break into your ch…ch…chastisement.”

“Enough!” Metcalf barked. “You may go.”

The teenager fled before the word “go.”

Leroy advanced into the room. He doffed his hat, his eyes fastened on the woman. “You must be the Missus. Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am. My name’s Leroy Hunt.”

The woman nodded nervously, casting her eyes downward. She said nothing.

Hunt surveyed the other occupants of the table. “These all your young ‘uns? What do I count here…five, six, seven, eight. My, my, you have been a busy lady.”

The woman now looked panic-stricken and turned toward Metcalf in mute appeal.

“Martha, take the children and go. I have business to discuss with this man.”

Wordlessly, noiselessly, the woman and children slipped from the room like so many ghosts. Their dinners were left uneaten.

Leroy dropped his hat on the table, walked up to the woman’s plate and helped himself to a chicken leg. He looked questioningly at Metcalf. “You don’t mind now, do you? I’ve had me a busy night and it’s a shame to see all these fine vittles go to waste.”

Metcalf watched him eat, his face expressionless. Ignoring the question, he asked one of his own. “Do you have it?”

Leroy tossed the chicken bone back on the plate, fastidiously wiped his fingers on a napkin and then advanced to the head of the table where Metcalf sat.

Reaching inside his coat pocket, he produced the stone ruler. “Yes sir, I do.” He laid it in front of the older man’s plate.

In a rare show of pleasure, Metcalf smiled. “Excellent! This is the Lord’s doing. Praise be!”

Hunt’s expression was sour. “Beggin’ to differ, sir but it wasn’t the Lord’s doin’. It was mine. I don’t recollect him bein’ anywhere about when I nicked the thing.”

Smoothly Metcalf replied, “You are the Lord’s instrument, Mr. Hunt.”

Leroy grimaced. “That bein’ the case, your Lord must be mighty hard up for tools.”

“The Lord works in mysterious ways…” Metcalf trailed off.  He picked up the ruler, examining its intricate symbols with keen interest.

Leroy watched him for a few moments. “You call that doodad a key?”

Metcalf nodded.

“Strange shape for a key. What’s it unlock if you don’t mind me askin’?”

Metcalf was lost in contemplation of the object. “Someday you’ll know. Someday the whole world will know.”

“Guess I’ll wait then.”

The older man frowned as a thought struck him. “You didn’t have any trouble this time, did you?”

“Nope.” Hunt put his hands in his pockets and rocked back on his heels in satisfaction. “I got it before that little gal come in to straighten up her sister’s place.”

“Did she see you?” Metcalf transferred his attention from the ruler to Hunt.

“Not hardly. The place was dark and I knocked her into a wall before she could get a bead on me. Lit out of there while she was still collectin’ her breath to holler fer help.”

Leroy noted that Metcalf’s brow was furrowed in thought. “Something botherin’ you, chief?” he asked casually.

“I wonder if she knows anything about this.”

Leroy snorted. “Not hardly!”

“Why do you say that, Mr. Hunt?”

“Cause if she did, she woulda done a better job of hidin’ the damn thing stead of leavin’ it settin’ right on the coffee table like it was some kind of knickknack.” Hunt sounded annoyed and a trifle disappointed. “Didn’t hardly make it worth my while breakin’ and enterin’. Didn’t have to ransack nothin’. Just left it settin’ out in the open, plain as day.”

Hunt stopped speaking. A sly smile crossed his lips as a new idea occurred to him. “Course if you want I should go back and tidy up the situation for you, I aim to please.”

Metcalf appraised Hunt with a look of thinly-veiled disgust. “I think that leaving a suspicious trail of bodies behind can hardly be considered tidy.”

Leroy shrugged. “Whatever you say. So long as I get paid, it don’t make no never mind to me.”

“You’ll get your money.” Metcalf stood up from the table, indicating that the interview was nearing an end. “I am satisfied that the antique dealer’s sister is not involved in the matter. You no longer need to concern yourself with her.”

He walked with Hunt toward the dining room door. “Once this key is translated, I will have more work for you.”

“You know how to reach me, chief. Always happy to oblige.” He retrieved his hat, tipped the brim to Metcalf and left.

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Genre – Archaeology / Thriller

Rating – PG

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