The snow was even thicker now and she was extra careful as she drove the last mile home. Parking on the driveway, she grabbed her things and the box and hurried inside. She dumped everything on a chair and set the box down on the kitchen table, took a step back and stared at it.
What if it’s valuable? What if someone from the church realises it’s missing? she thought.
The voice was inside her head again. A gentle and amused voice, but definitely not her own this time.
It was male.
Was she going mad? A lot had happened today.
That flagstone didn’t look as if it had been budged since it was laid. So why was the box there and who does it belong to?
There was no reply this time.
She grabbed the tea towel draped over the handle of the oven door, wet it under the cold tap and began to rub, gently, at the lid of the box. The layers of accumulated dust and grime gradually came away to reveal the shiny metal below. It was beautiful and covered in the most intricate engraving of tiny, delicate, intertwined flowers. There were words in the centre of the lid which Kate couldn’t make out at first, and the bumps she had felt before shone like diamonds. It was impossible to tell if they were real or not, but the level of craftsmanship that had gone into making the box made her think they might be.
She trailed her fingers over the surface. It was the most exquisite thing she had ever seen and with a little effort she managed to decipher the words engraved in flowing script; they read:
Let no man trespass where angels fear to tread.
What does that mean? she wondered. The phrase sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it.
Several hours passed as she cleaned the box and the snow continued to fall. When she’d finished, she sat back and looked at its now gleaming surface with satisfaction.
She heard a noise outside. Kate went over to the sink and leaned against the edge, peering into the darkness beyond the semi-circle of light that spilled from the kitchen window. It was a world of impenetrable blue shadows and ominous looming shapes, but Kate had lived there all her life and knew every plant and bush and tree by heart. No one could have hidden there unseen by her expert eyes.
When Kate’s parents had retired to France, they had left her in charge of the house with the unspoken agreement that it was a kind of early inheritance. She’d been living there alone for more than a year and had never felt scared. Until now.
She listened carefully to the silence and was about to turn back into the room when she heard it again. A scraping noise as if someone, or something, was sliding against the wall of the house. She took a quick step across the kitchen and flicked on the outside light.
The suddenly bright garden looked like a Christmas cake covered in fondant icing. A black shape darted across the expanse where the lawn should be and Kate let out the breath she’d been holding.
Just a cat!
With a sigh of relief, she turned off the light and began filling the kettle. Coffee and a sandwich wasn’t much of a meal, but it was very late now and she hardly ever cooked anyway. It was too much of a chore for one. Her mother would have a fit if she knew she lived off coffee, toast and microwave ready meals, but at the moment, she was more interested in the box than food. How was she going to get it open, for instance? There must have been a key once, but that was long gone and her intense desire to know what was inside prompted her to stick the point of a knife in the keyhole and fiddle with the lock. It didn’t work, and she stopped before she did any damage.
The inscription seemed to act as a warning against prying eyes, but if the box was as old as she suspected, then the owner wouldn’t be around to complain anymore.
Where is the key and who would hide something in the floor of a church? Does Reverend Pilling know it’s there? Does anyone know it’s there?
Her thoughts raced through dozens more similar questions as she finished her meagre supper and tried to decide what to do. In the end she took the box to bed with her and placed it on the bedside table, next to her radio alarm clock. Before she got undressed she dragged the curtains across the window. A shadow flitted across the garden and Kate froze. She pressed a hand to the window, shielding her eyes from the light inside, certain she could see someone standing beneath the cherry tree, then a dollop of snow dropped from an upper branch with a soft thud and the shape resolved itself into the trunk of the tree.
I’m imagining things, she thought.
Thou should not steal from churches.
There it went again, that other voice, a gentle admonishment of her earlier actions.
And now I’m hearing things.
Even if she had imagined it, Kate went back to the kitchen and switched on the outside light again before double checking that all the doors and windows were securely locked. The box would be safe for now on her bedside table. In the morning, she would think of a way to get inside it.
* * *
At 7.00am her alarm went off as usual, but the station she had it tuned to wasn’t playing the classical music she was expecting. This was a slow, modern ballad. Eva Cassidy’s version of the eighties pop song, Time After Time. She wouldn’t have known it except her mother had asked for the CD for her birthday.
The words of the chorus drifted through the haze of sleep and into her head, but it was the voice that whispered alongside it that brought her fully awake.
I’m waiting for you, Kate.
She flung out her arm, missed the off button and the song continued. She sat up and rubbed the sleep from her eyes. The box was still there, solid evidence that she hadn’t dreamed the events of the previous day.
She managed to turn off the alarm and got out of bed, pushing her feet into fluffy black slippers and pulling on a thick black towelling dressing gown then padded down the stairs to the kitchen. The outside light was still on and as she switched it off she noted there was no disturbance of the snow. Whatever she had thought to be lurking in the shadows last night had been nothing more than her imagination. A real person couldn’t have crossed the lawn without leaving deep footprints that would even now be tell tale dimples beneath the snow that had fallen throughout the night.
On autopilot she flicked on the kettle, took a mug from the draining board and added coffee, sugar and milk. Two slices of bread were popped into the toaster. Her dressing gown merged with the background of the shiny, polished granite counter top, leaving only the reflection of her face staring up at her. For a second she was reminded of the man standing in the road, but the memory was already fading and her recollection of his features was hazy. The snap of the letter box made her look away and he was forgotten.
Among the advertisements for slimming clubs and local handy man services was a single white envelope addressed to her. She opened it and unfolded the paper inside. At the top of the letter was the name and crest of Kate’s old school. It was an invitation to the school reunion. She’d never quite fitted in there. Being a bit of a loner meant that friendships were short-lived, and she’d become a target for the bullies. Even later, at university, the experience had made her wary of developing close friendships and she had no desire to see any of her torturers again. She screwed the letter up and dropped it into the recycling bin along with the other junk mail.
As she dressed for work her gaze was repeatedly drawn to the box. She sat on the edge of the bed and held it, reading the words on the lid once more and letting her fingers trace the lines of intertwined stems and leaves all the way to their ends, where they blossomed into perfectly formed daisies. The box was covered in flowers, but only twelve of them had stones at the centre of their radiating petals and there seemed no logical pattern to the placement of them, as though the piece had been buried before it was finished. She rested her chin on one hand and drummed the fingers of the other on the box lid. There had to be a way to get it open.
She opened a drawer of her dressing table and rummaged amongst the half empty bottles of nail varnish and crushed, lipstick stained tissues for anything that she might use to pick the lock. Right at the back she found a hair clip and in the same way she’d tried to use the knife, she jiggled the pin in the keyhole. That didn’t work either, it was obviously harder than it looked on T.V. She tossed the now bent and useless clip back in the drawer and sighed, her shoulders slumped over in disappointment, until a sudden thought made her sit up and smile.
“I know just the person to get you open,” she said to the box and hopped off the bed.
* * *
When she left the house, the box left with her, nestled in the bottom of an eco-friendly, re-usable shopping bag. There was only one person she could think of who might have the skills to pick the lock. Brian!
Brian Thomas, another researcher at Sharpe’s, had made no secret of the fact that he fancied Kate, but whilst she found him a little over-friendly and sometimes annoying, he was mostly harmless, as long as he kept his hands to himself. She definitely wasn’t interested in him in that way. Kate wasn’t interested in anyone that way. It wasn’t that she’d never had boyfriends, there’d been one or two at university, but none of them had ever seemed to match up to her expectations and the relationships had soon fizzled out.
What Kate wanted was heart thumping, knock you off your feet, love at first sight. As a hopeless romantic, she still clung to the idea that there was a perfect someone for everyone out there and that by some miracle you were destined to meet. She had not looked into the eyes of Brian Thomas the day they’d met and found Mr Right, mainly because she couldn’t see herself spending a lifetime with someone so covered in tattoos you couldn’t see their actual skin any more, but at twenty three she was in no rush and was happy to wait for her soul-mate, wherever he may be.
Today however, Brian was Mr Perfect. The perfect person to open the box. At the office, Brian’s tattoos were hidden under a smart shirt and tie, but in his spare time he could be found on or under a motorcycle, usually with a heavy rock soundtrack playing in the background. Kate despised rock music, but Brian was OK, even if she did have to keep him at arm’s length, and his engineering skills might prove the ideal way to pick the lock on her precious box.