September 11, 2018
Cover art: Reese Dante
Genre: Mystery, contemporary romance
The Mystery of the Moving Image
Snow & Winter: Book #3
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.