The delivery wasn’t what she expected.
Kaitlyn dropped the box, spilling packing peanuts all over the front entry. Dropping to one knee she carefully pulled out a bundle of bubble wrap.
“Oh my gosh!” Peeling back the protective layers, she found cracked leather and ancient paper. “Mom?”
No response. After so kindly pointing out the package, her parent had disappeared into the kitchen, and was undoubtedly sampling her “cooking” wine while Kaitlyn’s back was turned.
“It’s worth a fortune,” she mumbled, transported to utter bliss by the eighteenth century stamp-press ink. Most fifteen-year-olds wouldn’t know or care what this was, but Kaitlyn had been dying to own an early US edition of the poems of Ossian—ever since her father read one to her, right before he disappeared. Original full marbled sheep; spine with simple gilt rules and with a red lettering piece, gilt… Oh she could die this instant happy!
But this couldn’t be the very copy he read to her?
Carefully turning back the cover, she gasped. Old fountain ink pen read, “To my dearest Charles”.
It was the same! The very same! The rarest book in his collection, the one that disappeared around the same time he did, a final puzzle piece the cops never tracked down.
No return label on the box.
She scowled at the package, dying to know as she hadn’t in ten years what happened to her father, and why he simply vanished from the face of the earth.
“You’re going to be late,” Mom reminded from the kitchen.
Off to piano, then Karate, then Biology study group.She groaned and kicked the box aside, throwing her life-sustaining backpack over both shoulders, and cradling this new jewel. She stepped out.
“See you at nine, Mom. Ahhh!” She tripped through the door of her New York-style townhouse, somersaulting down five steps, and landing with a whomp on her stomach.
“Ugh.” How many people saw that one? Ballet the last seven years hadn’t been enough to graceful-ize her, but maybe, just maybe Karate would? Mom might have actually come to the rescue after that crash if she wasn’t so used to Kaitlyn.
At the top of the steps, a hose stretched from the adjoining townhouse’s railing to hers.
There could only be one explanation: Brett Michals, neighbor and annoyance extraordinaire. Grr. She still couldn’t believe Mom had the audacity to suggest he liked her—that his constant pranks were a sign of affection. Dumb boys.
“All else fails, look first,” she grumbled, newly acquired treasure still clasped safely in her arms. Her Karate uniform and carefully packed dinner sprawled across the sidewalk. A ruby apple rolled to a stop at a glistening black dress shoe.
She looked up, then up some more.
“Can I help you young one?” The mutant-ly tall man offered a hand.
“Are you from England?”
He reminded her of a reaper, drawn, gray, aged as he began gathering up her things. “Perhaps once upon a time, Kaitlyn Strom. Where are you from?”
He really shouldn’t know her name. Did she do something dorky like wear a name tag today? Nope. No name tag. Oh wait, Karate uniform. Yup. Purple permanent marker and her forever label.
“Who are you?” She got to her feet, pulling wild brown curls out of her eyes.
“Oh, no One.” His attention turned to the still open door, and the brown package.
Okay, Mr. Strange, she thought. “You here to see my mom?”
“Hm? No. Are you a collector?” He pointed to her book.
“In that case, there is a special symposium at the Museum of Art tonight. Rare artistic opportunity, invitation only.”
“Well see, I don’t have an invitation.”
“Then you are in luck.” He offered an off-white envelope.
Don’t take gifts from strangers!her head screamed, but she couldn’t refuse the crimson wax seal and high quality parchment.
“Nine sharp.” He smiled.
“But the museum closes at 8.” And she would know. She went twice a week if she could manage.
“Special events require special treatment.”
Pulling the ineffective clip out of her hair, she lifted the seal without cracking it. A glimmer of light dropped to the pavement.
“What the…” A key no larger than the tip of her pinkie blinked up at her. “Um, mister-”
He was gone. Just like that, gone. Weird.
The tiny key gleamed up at her. Numbers were engraved across the top: 0097. Some kind of locker key?