IF THERE was one thing I’d taken away from the last six months of murder and mystery, it was to expect the unexpected.
Max Ridley and I stared at a four-foot-tall wooden crate that had been delivered to the Emporium that morning. Neither of us had spoken for a good minute.
“Five bucks says there’s a dead body inside,” he finally said.
I shook my head. “We’d smell decomp.”
“A normal person wouldn’t say that,” he replied, not looking away from the box.
“Normal is relative.”
“Let’s not get into a philosophical debate before 10:00 a.m.”
I took a step forward and snatched the shipping label from the plastic envelope slapped on the front of the crate. I unfolded it and held my magnifying glass up to the small print.
“Who’s it from?” Max asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“Should I call 911?”
I glanced up. “The last time we did that, they sent a vigilante who tried to kill me.”
“That’s true.” Max held up his cell. “But I know three cops and an FBI agent by proxy, so we have options.”
“I don’t trust mystery packages, Seb. Not anymore.”
I looked at the label again. “It came from a shipping company on the Upper East Side.”
“But no name?”
“Is it addressed to you?”
“Owner,” I clarified.
“I’m calling the cops.”
I looked at Max, reached out, and put my hand over his cell. “Calvin probably just ordered something for the apartment.”
Ah yes, that had been one bit of good to come out of losing my home to an explosion back in February. It’d taken just over two months of searching and Realtor harassing, but as of yesterday, Snow and Winter were the new tenants of 4B—a loft apartment in the East Village above a coffee shop and hippy-dippy clothing store. And despite the insurmountable odds, I was able to tick off every single one of my neurotic must-haves and still keep to a rent that wouldn’t bleed me and Calvin dry. I mean, it was by far more expensive than my old, cozy, rent-controlled place, but seeing as how I was putting my name on the bills with a guy I liked a lot—yeah. Seemed worth the extra cash.
“Call him and ask,” Max replied.
“He’s busy with manly stuff,” I answered.
“Unpacking, lifting heavy things, inserting tabs into slots….”
“Just call him.”
I let out an annoyed huff, took my phone from my back pocket, pulled Calvin up in the recent contacts, and called.
“Hey, baby,” Calvin answered.
“Hey,” I said. “Got a second?”
“For you? Several.”
“Aren’t you cute.”
Calvin laughed. “Everything okay?”
“Yeah. I just had a package delivered here at the Emporium and was wondering if you’d ordered something big—like, a chandelier—for the apartment?”
“And had it shipped there?” he asked, sounding unsure.
I frowned and glanced sideways at Max. “I’ve got a four-foot-tall mystery box in the middle of my showroom.”
“Since when has that ever stopped you, Hercule?”
I smiled a little. “Ohhh….”
“Like that?” Calvin asked.
“I knew you would.”
I laughed, much to Max’s displeasure. “Figured I’d check in with you before cracking it open. I tend to get a lot of junk this way. People cleaning out grandma’s attic ship me garbage and say ‘keep it until it sells,’ like I’m a warehouse.”
“No return address, then?” Calvin asked, and in the background, I could hear tape being torn off a cardboard box. I’d offered to close the Emporium to help him finish unpacking the apartment, but he’d politely kissed my forehead and shoved me out the front door that morning.
“Some shipping and supply office way the hell uptown.”
“Were you expecting a housewarming gift?” I tried. Not that anyone in Calvin’s family even knew we’d moved in together. They’d completely stopped talking to him at Christmastime when he’d come out—the exception being Calvin’s Uncle Nelson. Nelson was a sweet old guy. I’d said hello on the phone a few times. He was nothing like the impression I had of Calvin’s father, a retired military man who hated me on principle alone.
“No,” Calvin answered.
“I’m going to tear into this crate.”
“Don’t let me stop you.”
“I’ll see you tonight,” I said.
“I’ll be the big sweaty guy in the house,” Calvin replied.
“I love when you’re sweaty.”
“Boss,” Max interrupted, and I swear I could hear his eye-roll.
Calvin was laughing over the line. “Bye, sweetheart.”
“Bye.” I stuffed my phone into my pocket.
“When’s the honeymoon?”
“Stop it,” I muttered.
“It’s not Calvin’s, then?” Max asked.
I shook my head. “Nope. Would you grab a hammer from the office?”
“All right,” he answered a bit reluctantly. Max left my side, hiked up the stairs, went past the register, and disappeared into my closet-sized office. “But if there’s anything inside that’s dead, dying, or threatening to kill either of us, I’m burning this place to the ground because it’s totally cursed.”
“I’m not sure whether you’re trying to save me or screw me over,” I said, mostly to myself, but Max heard me.
“Saving you, believe me,” he replied. He jumped off the stairs and approached with the hammer. “Move aside.”
“You want to open it?”
“Maybe if I’m the one to do it, it’ll negate any potential chaos that would otherwise befall you.”
“You’re so sweet.” I took a step back and crossed my arms.
“Is that guy from the Javits Center’s Antique Fair still coming by today?” Max asked as he stuck the back of the hammer under the wooden lid and pushed down on the handle. The nails squeaked loudly as they were pulled free.
“He’s supposed to.”
“He was supposed to on Saturday.”
“And Sunday,” I clarified. “Then I canceled yesterday so I could move. If he doesn’t come today to pick up my items for the show, they can kiss my ass next year when they’re looking for sponsorship money.”
“Seriously.” Max laughed, then moved the hammer and hoisted the lid once more. “So how’s the new place?” He glanced over his shoulder at me.
I winced as more nails screeched free from the wood. “Good. I’m hoping our bed will be delivered today. Spent last night on the living room floor.”
“At least you had a hunky ginger to keep you company.”
There’d been a lot of change in my life as of late. Mostly for the good, of course.
Business was going great, despite the seemingly bad luck the Emporium had in terms of being a target in the Nevermore and Curiosities cases—but we’d all escaped those with our heads still attached. And after a long line of bad-for-me boyfriends, I’d just moved in with a guy who was my soul mate. Friends and family were healthy, happy—I was even a pet owner now.
So yeah, a lot of things were good.
But I guess that’s why I’d also been sidelined by anxieties lately. I wasn’t expecting old self-doubts when I was on top of the world.
Like, one too many of Calvin’s compliments had gone to my head, and when my clothes had been torched in the fire, I’d purchased a new wardrobe for the first time in… at least a decade. No more secondhand crap. I now owned formfitting, colored clothes. I thought they’d finally give a boost of confidence to my appearance, an insecurity I usually hid with self-deprecating humor, except it’d turned out to be nothing but dread since day one.
And I knew how… stupid it must have sounded. But until someone has been intensely uncomfortable in their clothes, I didn’t think people realized just how much a wardrobe could make or break them. Yeah, the secondhand shit didn’t fit, was old and worn-out, but it was safe. I didn’t need to check a color wheel before putting something on. I disappeared into a crowd. Now every morning was approached with a certain level of trepidation. Were people staring because I clashed and was an eyesore? Were they staring because I wasn’t the best-looking guy and these clothes made me stand out when I used to blend in? They must wonder what Calvin was doing slumming with a guy like me.
Of course I hadn’t said any of this out loud.
Hell would sooner freeze over.
Max lifted the top from the crate, set it on the floor, then peered inside. “Lots of padding. Looks like a piece of furniture.”
I took a few steps forward to see for myself. Wedged between the object and the crate wall was a smaller wrapped item. I tugged it free. “Pull the front of the crate off, will you? We can’t lift that out.”
“Sure thing.” Max took the hammer and went at more of the nails.
I set the smaller item down on a nearby display table and carefully removed the bubble wrap. Nestled within was a round metal canister. I carefully picked it up. There was weight to it.
“You know,” Max said, around the tearing of wooden planks. “If we go through all this and it’s some fugly television from the 1950s….”
I stared at the canister for another moment. “Not a television,” I murmured.
“What?” Max tore off another piece of wood.
“It’s not a TV,” I said again, turning to look at him.
He glanced at the crate and motioned to the item within. “It’s hard to see through the wrapping, but it looks like one of those with the built-in cabinet.”
I walked back to the crate, reached inside, and yanked away the padding. “This is—” I caught myself from finishing, almost like I didn’t want to jinx it. I tore out layer after layer of careful packaging, revealing a spectacularly well-preserved cabinet. “Jesus Christ,” I swore.
“What is it?”
“Kinetoscope. A one-person movie viewer, patented by Thomas Edison,” I said, looking at Max. “This was before they’d figured out how to project a moving image to a large audience.” I leaned into the crate and pointed. “See here, you look through the peephole on top. There’s a bulb inside that backlights the frames, and the film is spooled through the cabinet.”
“It’s original?” Max asked.
I rubbed my bristly chin and stared hard. “I think so. Help me pull it out. And for the love of God—”
“Be careful,” Max finished for me.
“The Kinetoscope wasn’t around very long,” I said as we walked the cabinet out of the crate. “As the film industry grew, inventions became obsolete fairly quickly.”
“How did these work, though?” Max asked. “I mean, people didn’t have them in homes, right?”
“Oh no. You’d go to a Kinetoscope parlor. There used to be one here in New York, you know. Taking inflation into account, Edison was charging the parlors somewhere around six hundred dollars for the reel of film.”
“Hell of a businessman.” Max began picking up the mess once we’d gotten the Kinetoscope situated in an empty space of showroom floor. “What was in the little package?”
“A film reel,” I said, hands on my hips as I made a slow circuit around the case.
“Really?” he asked excitedly.
“Niche market makes this difficult to price. It’d be the historical value—”
“Seb. Home movie. Focus.”
I glanced up. “What about it?”
Max made exaggerated gestures at where I’d left the canister. “Let’s see what’s on it.”
I dropped my hands from my hips and went to the table. “I doubt it’s in any sort of salvageable condition.”
“Why do you say that?” he asked, going to the register counter and retrieving a pair of cloth gloves.
“Films simply weren’t well preserved back then. Acid ate away at the celluloid. Sometimes there were studio fires, or old reels were just destroyed. They had no intrinsic value at the time,” I explained.
Max offered the gloves as he joined me.
I put them on. “This would have also been before silent film stars like Charlie Chaplin or Harold Lloyd began protecting their work.” I picked up the canister again and held it close, studying the front and back side.
Max leaned against the table and crossed his arms lightly. “I remember watching Fred Ott’s Sneeze in my Film History class. That was Edison’s, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah, first copyrighted film in the United States,” I murmured. Fred Ott had been a gentleman who worked for Edison, who by all accounts had a particularly memorable sneeze. It was one of the test reels shot by W. K. L. Dickson, Edison’s assistant, who was the brilliant inventor of the Kinetograph camera and Scope viewer. “But even that film didn’t survive,” I continued. “It was submitted to the Library of Congress as a series of still images, later reanimated into a movie.”
“How do you know this?”
“I took notes in college.” I carefully removed the canister lid.
“You’re the guy at the cocktail party everyone regrets striking up a conversation with.”
“Yeah, probably.” I set the lid aside and stared at the spool of film. It looked… okay. Better than okay. Intact. Playable, even. “This is incredible. Look here—it has the perforations along the side of the frames.”
Max leaned close, reached out, and hovered his finger above the strip of film I held. “So, what, those holes feed in the Kinetoscope, right?”
“Right. Edison patented that concept as well, but it was Dickson who came up with the idea to slice 70mm film in half and make perforations. Afterward, the company was able to submit custom orders for film stock with these exact specifications for their machines.”
“Hundred-twenty-year-old movie,” Max said with an astonished tone. “It’s going to be either porn or cats.”
I laughed and took the film canister with me to the Kinetoscope. I stooped, opened the cabinet, and studied the mechanical setup.
“Are you going to try to play the film?”
“Sure.” I looked back at Max. “You want to see what it is, right?”
We sat in front of the Kinetoscope, studying old patent schematics I brought up on my phone, and tried to duplicate the arrangement with our mystery film stock. After about twenty minutes of “Be careful,” “No, the other way,” “The other, other way,” and the classic, “Oh shit,” we got it fed through the long system of spools.
Max was tearing through the crate’s packaging once again.
“What’re you doing?” I called, carefully shutting the cabinet.
“Looking for a note.”
“Is there one?”
“No.” More shuffling followed, and then Max peered down over the top of the cabinet at me. “This has to be from someone you know, don’t you think?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Trusting you with such a rare artifact.”
“I do love a good ego stroke,” I muttered before getting to my feet.
“Not to mention that shipping a crate is expensive, even if it’s just from one end of the city to the other,” Max concluded. The shop phone rang and he left my side to answer it.
“I’ll call the shipping company today,” I said, mostly to myself once Max started talking on the phone. “See if they can provide me with the client’s contact information….”
“Boss,” Max said. He wove in between displays, reaching the phone out. “It’s Pete-Ain’t-Never-Gonna-Show from the fair.”
My shoulders dropped a bit. I took the phone. “Pete?”
“Hey! Snow! I got your message about the pickup.”
I pursed my lips. “I left that message on Sunday. It’s Tuesday.”
“Well, yeah, but you weren’t open yesterday.”
“You were supposed to be here on Saturday, Pete. I’ve had my stock for the fair boxed and waiting since last Friday.”
“Look, I’m sorry about missing the pickup window, but it’s been a busy week of prepping for the event. We welcome our sponsors to drop items off at the Javits Center themselves.”
“I don’t drive,” I replied. “And I shouldn’t have to trek to the ass-end of Hell’s Kitchen myself when I’m paying a sponsorship level that includes the pickup and delivery of all inventory on display for the fair.”
Max winced, I think on Pete’s behalf.
The antiquing community didn’t have a lot of thirty-three-year-olds in it. And there were some members who didn’t enjoy taking a young’un like me seriously. Most had no idea how hard I’d worked to get where I was in the business.
I’d gone into debt to obtain an MFA and put in several years as a sort-of apprentice under one of the biggest assholes in the industry, my late boss Mike Rodriguez. I took pride in my shop and had labored for three years to cultivate and bring attention to obscure relics of our past. Now, my clients returned time and again because they knew the knowledge, inventory, and attention to detail they’d receive from me was top-notch. Snow’s Antique Emporium has since become the sort of business that the Javits Antique Fair reaches out to, requesting I sponsor their event.
So I might have been one of the younger members of the community, but God save the poor bastard who took my hard-earned money and didn’t meet my expectations in return.
“I’m coming by today,” Pete answered, sounding rather unfazed by my agitation.
“The fair opens tomorrow.”
“And that’s why I’m coming today,” he reiterated, like I was the dense one.
The bell above the Emporium’s door chimed. Max and I both turned to see Beth Harrison standing in the open doorway. She was my business neighbor and the owner of Good Books, was about Pop’s age, and had long ago lost her last fuck to give.
“Good morning!” she declared, walking toward us with something in her hands.
“When will you be here?” I asked Pete as Max left me in favor of Beth.
“Oh… should be between eleven and… threeish?”
“Traffic across town must be a real bitch,” I answered, deadpan.
“You’ll be there when I stop in, right?”
“Good. I’ll need you to sign a few forms.”
“Will you be at the fair tomorrow?” Pete asked next.
I looked up. Beth was giving me a curious expression. Max was staring at his phone. “Let’s just focus on today first, shall we?” I muttered a goodbye and ended the call.
Beth walked forward. “Someone’s got his grumpy pants on this morning.”
“I’m actually in a good mood,” I corrected. “That was Pete White from the fair. He was supposed to be here four days ago to pick up my collection for the show.”
“How professional,” she said sarcastically.
Max raised his head and turned his phone to show me the screen, even though I was too far away to make out the image. “Marshall’s Oddities is a sponsor, and he’s already set up at the Center.”
Marshall’s Oddities, owned and operated by copycat Greg Thompson, was my only real competition in the city. I said “competition” because he’d basically stolen my shop’s image of “curious and bizarre” and still tried to pilfer my customers whenever possible. I was more than happy to supply the names of fellow dealers to my clients if there’s something they want outside my wheelhouse, because in turn those businesses sent customers to me. But not Greg. He’d never once scratched my back.
Frankly, I didn’t want him to. Or trust him to.
We did not get along, and I was okay with that being the entirety of our relationship. Although… it might also be partly due to the fact that last December I suspected Greg was the nutjob behind the Nevermore murders. But hey. Honest mistake.
“How’d you find that out?” I asked.
Max put his phone away.
Beth held up the plate in her hands. “So… how’re you boys on this fine May morning?”
“Why are you so chipper?” Max asked. “You’re talking like a fairy godmother.”
Beth snorted. “I am not. You’ve just spent too much time around your boss, whose good moods resemble most people’s bad moods.”
“They do not,” I grumbled.
“Be nice,” she responded. “I’ve got cookies.”
“Were you going to share?” I asked. “Or were you just taking them for a walk?”
“I don’t know why the hell I put up with you sometimes, Sebby.” Beth handed me the plate. “I come bearing gifts and you give me sass.”
“It’s my default setting,” I replied. I picked up a cookie and took a bite.
“Well, you’d better watch it,” Beth continued, “or that’s the last cookie I share with you.”
I held the plate out of reach. “No take backs,” I said around a full mouth.
Beth was always complaining that customers were stealing her pens. I noted she had three or four stuffed into her bun that morning but decided to let her find those on her own. She was wearing a feline-inspired top, although subtle today—just a cat nose and whiskers—but she also wore leggings with creatures on them that looked half-taco, half-cat, so… a typical wardrobe day for Beth.
“Are you dating a mechanic?” I asked, pointing at her clunky boots.
Beth looked down briefly. “My cat barfed in my Birkenstocks this morning.”
“Charming,” I answered.
Beth put her hands on her hips and walked toward the Kinetoscope. “What have you got here?”
“This is a whatchamacallit,” Max said, pointing at the cabinet.
“A what?” Beth asked.
“Kinetoscope,” I said around the final bite of cookie.
“What does it do?”
“It’s a one-person movie viewer,” Max answered, parroting my explanations back to Beth. “It even came with a 120-year-old film.”
“You don’t say?”
“My money is on porn or cats,” he continued.
“I like those odds,” she agreed.
I set the plate on a nearby table and wiped crumbs from the front of my sweater-vest.
I looked up. “Seb, Beth. Seb.”
She ignored me. “You look so handsome in green.”
“I thought this was blue.”
She and Max shook their heads.
“Christ,” I muttered to myself, looking back down.
“Seb was about to turn the Kinetoscope on,” Max said, almost like he’d caught my it’s-not-blue anxiety and changed the subject. “Want to stay for the big unveiling?”
Beth clapped her hands together. “Oh yes! Let’s see what you have.”
I stepped back to the cabinet and gave the Kinetoscope a final once-over before daring to power it on for what might have been the first time in over a hundred years. But against all odds, the machine came to life, the wheels inside making sound as the film was set into a continuous loop. I moved around to the front and glanced in the peephole. The bulb illuminating the projected stills was bright, and I had to squint as I watched.
It turned out the mystery footage wasn’t Victorian porn or cats, but instead, a boxing match. And one I recognized, at that.
The Leonard-Cushing fight of 1894. It was sold by Edison as an authentic fight, but the truth was, it was staged and filmed at his studio, Black Maria, in Jersey. Regardless, it was the first boxing match to be recorded, and of the six reels that were once for sale to the Kinetoscope parlors, less than a full round still existed today. The knockout footage—naturally the most popular round with customers—hadn’t survived.
At least, it hadn’t thirty seconds ago.
Because I was watching it now.
Leonard won. I knew he would, but no one in modern times had ever seen it.
I opened my mouth to say… something, but there was a weird blip in the film, some distortion, and then the scene was different. It was outdoors, the image dark and grainy. Some odd lighting, just above two figures in the scene, illuminated a street that otherwise would have been engulfed in nighttime. The figures appeared to be men—neither from the prior boxing scene. One had very distinctive muttonchops and a bit of a gut. The second man was pretty nondescript. They seemed to be arguing, but the frame rate the movie had been shot at was different from what was used today, making their motions quick and dramatic-looking, so it was hard to tell.
Without warning, Muttonchops pulled something from inside his coat, and the motion blurred as he lunged. Nondescript Man held his neck and then crumpled to the ground. Muttonchops stared down at him for a few seconds, dropped whatever he had been holding, and ran.
The scene looped and brought me back to the fight.
“So?” Max asked excitedly.
I raised my head, looking at him and Beth. “I… think I just witnessed a murder.”