Book: Led Astray: The Best of Kelley Armstrong

Previous: Suffer the Children
Next: Gabriel’s Gargoyles

The wooden puzzle box floated on my computer screen, a 3D model perfectly rendered, the liquid display bubbling under my fingertips as I traced the series of twists and turns that would unlock its mysteries. There, and there and . . . yes, there. I smiled.

I couldn’t resist mousing over to it and clicking, just in case it proved interactive. It wasn’t, of course. Simply an amazing piece of art, the splash screen gateway to the website of a small publisher of puzzle books.

I clicked the “enter here” entreaty, feeling a frisson of grief as that perfect puzzle evaporated, replaced by a perfectly boring website. Now I imagined the solution to another challenge—how, as a Web designer, I could make this site so much better. From the looks of it, though, my services would be more than they could afford, so I directed my gaze to the upper right corner where, as I’d been told, there was a second entreaty—this one to try an online puzzle and win a prize.

So I clicked and read, checking it out so carefully you’d think they were asking me to donate a kidney. But you can’t be too careful on the Web. Ninety-nine percent of freebies are bullshit. Fortunately, most of those are obvious—badly worded and misspelled missives that never quite explain how a Nigerian prince got the e-mail address of Mrs. Joe Smith in Nowhere, Idaho.

There is, however, that other one percent—legitimate giveaways for promotional exposure—and this seemed to be one of them. Solve a puzzle; win a prize; progress to the next level for a bigger prize. The entry-level contest would win you a downloadable, sixteen-page puzzle book. A reasonable reward for a reasonably simple puzzle, one I solved absently as most of my brain was still occupied reading the page’s fine print.

I entered the solution for the anagram and was redirected to a page with my prize available for immediate download. I scanned the file for viruses, of course, but it was clean. And that was it. They didn’t even request an e-mail address so I could be signed up for “exciting promotional offers.” The page simply gave me a code that would allow me to progress to the next level . . . after a twenty-four-hour waiting period.

I jotted down the code, bookmarked the site and flipped back to my work.

Over the next week, I proceeded through four more levels, solving a Sudoku, a Tangram, a Tower of Hanoi, a Takegaki, and winning a sample e-book, a three-volume e-collection, a limited edition omnibus and a brass-plated n-puzzle with the company logo on the tile’s squares. I needed to provide a mailing address for the last, which was fine. I gave my post office box. I wouldn’t be rushing to collect it, though. My reward came in knowing I’d already gotten farther than anyone in the puzzle enthusiast e-mail loop that had first announced the contest.

By day eight, I was sitting at my computer, one eye on the clock, waiting for my next twenty-four-hour hiatus to be up.

My cell phone chirped. When I saw the number, I smiled and picked up.

“Hey, there. Did your conference end early?”

Daniel sighed. “I wish. I just called to say hi, see whether you’d be free for dinner Friday when I get in.”

“You aren’t tired of eating out yet?”

“As long as they don’t serve conference luncheon rubber chicken, I’m good.”

A message box popped up on my screen, telling me it was time, and I missed what he said next. I um-hmm’d appropriately, but my mind was already on the next puzzle. It was a variation on the classic Zebra puzzle, otherwise known as Einstein’s Riddle. Now this was something worth solving.

“And then I rode a camel through Pittsburgh . . .”

“What?”

“Ah, you are listening. Working?”

“Caught me.”

“On a puzzle?”

I swore, and apologized. He only laughed, then let me go after we set a date for Friday. Even as I hung up, I was pulling over a sheet of paper and drawing my grid for the puzzle.

I solved it, of course. I shouldn’t say that so nonchalantly. It was hard. Damn hard. Logic puzzles aren’t my forte. By the time I figured it out, I’d passed my twenty-four-hour waiting limit. Even when I submitted the answer, I wasn’t certain I had it right, and the site didn’t tell me, just said the answer needed to be manually processed and asked for my e-mail address, with a promise to provide a response within twelve hours. I gave them my throwaway one.

Dramatically, at the top of the eleventh hour, the e-mail arrived. My prize? An invitation to try for the grand prize: five thousand dollars. The catch? I had to go to the publisher’s office and solve the same wooden puzzle that was rotating on their splash page.

Now, as a small business owner, I could see the point in this. If you’re going to give away real money, you want to get your promotional mileage out of it. Have the prospective winner come down, solve the puzzle and film the big event for your website. Travel could be a problem, but according to the address given, it was just over an hour away. Asking me to drive there was perfectly reasonable for a five-grand payoff.

And yet . . .

I didn’t buy my house until I could afford a fifty-percent down payment. I’d been dating Daniel for four years, yet had dodged the marriage question, waiting to be sure we’d make it to five. I vetted every client before accepting a new job. I checked the weather forecast before going out. I had never jaywalked in my life.

I don’t take chances. Not even when it comes to my beloved puzzles.

So I researched the puzzle publisher. I verified that the address given was correct, as was the phone number. Then I called using a blocked number.

A woman answered the phone. Elderly, by the creaks and warbles in her voice. Her son owned the business and she was his office assistant. She explained the deal exactly as outlined in the e-mail—come to the office, solve the wooden puzzle, win the prize. Of course, if I won I had to agree to allow my name and photo to be displayed on their site, etcetera, etcetera.

I was given an appointment time. There was street parking, but the municipality towed after an hour and was usually waiting to jump, so she advised me to use a strip mall lot a block away.

After the call, I reloaded the company’s splash page and started mentally working through the puzzle again.

The office was what I expected—a few rooms in a small building. As I’d been told, there was a tiny lot for the building’s other tenants—a nightclub and an after-hours clinic—but it had been split in half, one side for each business, with signs warning that anyone else would be towed, which seemed highly unfair to the publishing company, given that it was open when the others weren’t.

With everything else closed, the building was quiet, my footsteps echoing through the hall, the silence ominous in that horror movie “walking down a dark alley” kind of way that made me check over my shoulder every few steps.

When I reached the publisher’s office, though, I relaxed. The cheery yellow walls and comfy furniture helped, but it was the rest of the décor that put me at ease. Puzzles. The room was filled with them, from wooden ones on the coffee table to visual ones on the wall to special pieces on pedestals.

As the owner’s mother put my coat away, I walked over to a very old Moku-Zougan Japanese puzzle box and brushed my fingertips over the worn finish, shivering.

“You’re a collector, Mrs. Collins?” I asked as she returned.

“My son is. Call me Nell.”

Nell wasn’t as old as I would have guessed over the phone. Maybe sixty, but careworn, her face lined, hair white, a slight stoop in her shoulders.

She looked around absently, as if for a moment forgetting what she was there for, then said, “Let me get the puzzle.”

She bustled off. I heard her speaking in the inner office, her voice too low to make out the words. She returned with the puzzle box, held at arm’s length like an offering.

“My son’s getting the video camera for us. He’s so much better at that sort of thing.”

I balled my hands to keep myself from snatching the puzzle box from her. It was even more exquisite than it had looked on the screen, each piece worn smooth from countless hands trying to unlock its mysteries.

“It’s not easy, I’m afraid,” she said as she handed it to me

I smiled. “If it was, you wouldn’t be giving away such a prize. Have there been others?”

“A few. But they haven’t . . .” She trailed off.

“Haven’t solved it.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t be discouraging you.”

I flashed her a bigger smile. “Oh, I’m not discouraged. The worthiest puzzle is the one no one else can solve.” I turned a piece, pulse leaping as it snapped into place. I started to turn another, then stopped. “Should I wait?”

“No, no, that’s fine. He’ll come when you’re closer to the end. It may take a while.”

I looked at her. She was leaning forward, eyes fixed on the puzzle, glittering as I turned the second piece. Then the third.

“Do you do puzzles yourself?” I asked.

She shook her head, gaze never wavering from the box as I continued to click the pieces into place.

“You’re very good,” she said.

I said nothing, only kept turning, kept hearing that satisfying click.

“No one’s ever gotten that far,” she breathed in an awestruck whisper.

“It’s almost done. You might want to get your son.”

“He’s busy. If you solve it, we can always restage the last few moves.”

I set the puzzle box down. It clacked against the glass tabletop and she jumped at the sound.

“But—” she began. “You were almost—”

“I trust you have a standard release form drawn up?” I said.

“Release form?”

“Giving you permission to use my name and image for promotional purposes. As well as guaranteeing me my prize, should I solve the puzzle.”

Her eyes narrowed, eying me as if I were an unreasonable child.

“I suppose I could get one,” she said, turning away.

“Good. And I’d like to meet your son.”

She froze, shoulders stiffening.

“Do you even have a son, Mrs. Collins?” I asked.

She pivoted slowly, not answering. I hefted my purse and headed for the door.

“Stop,” she said.

I turned to see a gun trained on me.

“Ah,” I said. “That’s how it is then.”

“I would like you to complete the puzzle, Ms. Lane. In fact, I insist on it.”

I walked over and picked up the puzzle box. I turned it over in my hands, the wood so velvety smooth, so inviting that it took all my willpower not to start turning the final pieces.

“A Lamarchand’s Configuration, I presume?”

She blinked. “You know it?”

I lifted it to eye level, peering into its dark cracks. “It’s a legendary collection of pieces. Every enthusiast has heard the story.”

“Well, I’m not an enthusiast,” she twisted the word like an insult. “My son is. The puzzle is his.”

I glanced toward the inner office and heard sounds within—an oddly wet, squelching noise, as if someone was pacing in sodden slippers.

“My son,” she said. “He solved it two years ago, and they came.”

“The Cenobites.”

“Yes. The things they did to him . . .” She shuddered. “But he escaped. He came back and I found him. He was in pain, so much pain, and the only way to ease it was to feed him.”

“Not with steak and eggs, I presume.”

She looked at me sharply and lifted the gun, as if to remind me this was a serious situation and perhaps I should be a little less blasé about the whole thing.

I went on. “So you lure people here with your contests and feed them to your darling boy. And no one wonders where they’ve gone? I find that hard to believe.”

“Do you? Puzzle enthusiasts are a solitary lot, as you might know, Sarah Lane, age thirty-four, self-employed, never married, no children, no siblings, mother deceased, father in Brazil.”

“You’ve done your research. Let me guess: after you kill me, you’ll take my keys and move my car from that distant lot, so when someone does look for me . . .”

“You were never here.”

It was a far from foolproof plan, but from the burning glow in her eyes, she was beyond caring. However, mad though she might be, outside of bad movies, I suspect villains don’t stand around explaining the situation to their victims. Which begged the question . . .

I turned the puzzle over in my hands. “You do want me to solve this. That’s why you run the contests, looking for someone who can do it. But why would you want the box opened if you’ve seen what happens?”

“I want to summon them. Those Cenobites. To take him back.” She met my gaze. “There is a limit to maternal obligation.”

“If I succeed, you’ll be free of your son, and if I fail, he’ll be fed.”

“Precisely. So,” she waved the gun at the puzzle, “if you please.”

I completed another twist and again heard the satisfying click of success. As I started the next, she leaned in, gun lowering, gaze fixed once more on the wooden box. The piece clicked into place. I pulled my hand back, reaching to the other side to complete the final turn, and grabbed her wrist, shoving the gun up.

She didn’t relinquish the weapon. Put up a good fight for her age, actually. But I was younger, faster, stronger, and when the gun fired, it wasn’t my head it was pointing at.

As I knelt beside her body, an unearthly wail battered my eardrums. I looked up to see a figure in the doorway of the inner office. He looked as if he’d been ripped apart and haphazardly sewn back together, every joint from his jaw to his fingers gaping, held together with thick black thread, shredded flesh hanging, bones poking through.

When I didn’t run away screaming, he hesitated, confused. Then he charged. I lifted the gun and put a bullet through his gut. He fell back with a howl.

“Hurts, I know. I can’t kill you, but sometimes, that’s worse, isn’t it? Not being able to die.”

With a roar, he charged again. I fired again. He screamed again.

“I have a few questions to ask—”

“I’m not telling you anything,” he said, his garbled voice wheezing through the gap in his severed neck.

“Is that a challenge?” I smiled. “Excellent. Let’s begin then.”

He eventually answered all my questions. Then I let him feed off his mother and left, locking the door behind me. I took the puzzle box, of course. At home, I put it on a shelf with the others.

As collections went, this one was pitiably small, and had taken me more time and effort to accumulate than I cared to calculate. But it would, one day, be worth it. What I collected was not simply the puzzles, but their stories—the stories of those who opened them, and the mistakes they had made.

Normally, I was there to witness the story unfolding. As Nell Collins said, the boxes were not easy to open, and there were far more collectors who knew the story than those who could unlock the configurations. So they went looking for someone who could. They found me, and I opened all but the last twist. That final one I left for them. They conquered the puzzle . . . then it conquered them, while I hid and watched, and collected their story.

Someday, when I had enough stories, I would solve the greatest puzzle of all—how to use the box properly and win the glories foretold. And then, I would make that final turn myself.

The doorbell rang.

I took one last look at the new puzzle box, running my fingers over the wood. An exquisite piece, and an equally rare story to go with it. An excellent addition to my collection. Then I closed the secret closet. Locked it. Double-locked it. Put the mirror back in place over the door. I am a careful woman.

Daniel was at the door to take me to dinner. As we were leaving, my phone pinged, telling me I had a message. He gave me a look.

“Yes, I’ll turn it off,” I said.

As I did, I checked the message. It was from a collector who’d heard of my reputation and hoped I could help with a puzzle box he’d just acquired. I would, of course. And it would probably turn out to be a mere imitation. Most were. But I never turned down any possibility, however slight, to add another story to my collection.

Author’s Note: this story was first published in Hellbound Hearts, an anthology celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Clive Barker’s The Hellbound Heart and is set in his universe.

Previous: Suffer the Children
Next: Gabriel’s Gargoyles