Carmichael was the sort of man whose thoughts hit his face as soon as they entered his mind. Now his face was a study in frank disbelief. Eyebrows raised, forehead creased, eyes tilted in an interrogatory look that Noah had never seen before. This was a very bad sign.
“Is that it?” Carmichael asked.
“What do you mean, is that it? Didn’t you see it?”
Carmichael issued a dismissive sniff – another bad sign, Noah realised with dismay. “I’m not convinced. This is much below your usual standard.”
Noah’s dismay made him mute. On countless occasions he’d arrived at his mark’s doorstep with items for sale – photographs purporting to show ghosts lingering in misty churchyards, totemic figurines that held the essence of those who had clutched them to their breast as they died, recordings of the voices of the long departed, whispering their laments – dozens of examples of the macabre, the supernatural or the paranormal; all hungrily and lovingly accepted by the old fool. All of them – every single one – a fake, a phoney, a hoax. Never once had Carmichael questioned the veracity of Noah’s wares – not at the videotape of a grainy Bigfoot, nor the map of Nevada that purported to show where the alien spacecraft were being stored (invisible to the human eye, of course, but there, Noah would assure him), not the earrings that had once belonged to Morgan Le Fay, earrings that would change colour according to one’s mood. Every single time Carmichael would laugh, clap his hands in delight, and hand over the cash. Noah had come to believe that he could sell the man anything.
Until now, it seemed. This impossible box was unsellable.
Noah tried some of his salesman’s flair: “Now, come on, Mr Carmichael. I promise this is the real thing. When have I ever let you down?”
Carmichael frowned. His eyes, instead of their usual wonder, displayed a sharp, clear cynicism.
“You never have, which is why I am so surprised at you now. This“- he indicated the box on the table – “is so clearly a fraud. Did someone pull the wool over your eyes?”
Noah pulled the folder out of his rucksack. “It’s real, I swear. I can show you the documents again-”
Carmichael cut him off; his hand, cutting through the air, a blade of denial. “No. I am very disappointed in you, Noah. To try and fool me with such an obvious deception – and a very poor one at that – is really very disreputable of you. I shall have no further talk of it.” He got up from the chaise longue (white leather, probably five figures, Noah’s mind registered glumly) and began to usher Noah to the front door.
“Indeed,” he said over his shoulder, “unless you have any more of that Peruvian pixie-dust (ground-up aspirin tablets, plus some of his niece’s stick-on glitter), I think our business here is finished, don’t you? Please don’t call again unless you have something of real substance.”
With that dismissal ringing in his ears, Noah was swept out on to the doorstep. For the first time in nearly eight years, he had left a mark without closing a sale. The stink of failure stayed with him throughout the drive back home.
That stink stayed with him during his attempt to offload the thing to Mrs Neera Patel, a self-proclaimed medium who conversed with the dead on Tuesday afternoons in the conservatory of the old people’s home she worked in. This lady, upon whom Noah had dumped various fraudulent wonders such as a scale from the hide of the Loch Ness monster and a Welsh druidic Ouija board that spoke in rhyme, took one look at the thing and dispatched him with a shudder and a whispered invocation against evil tricksters. It stayed with him during his frantic sales pitch to Maria Berbatov, who claimed ancestry from the Roma gypsy gods and had a great fondness for painted seashells that spoke to her alien languages (three hundred pounds each, the painting done by kids down the rec centre for a fiver each). Maria didn’t even look at the box – she just pointed an imperious finger at Noah and told him never to darken her door with such damnable fakery again. As Noah tried all his once reliable marks, becoming ever more desperate, that miasma clung to him like cigarette smoke on a jacket. After twelve consecutive rejections, he admitted defeat.
Back in his study, sweating lightly, Noah set the box upon his table and gazed at the engraving on its smooth dark surface. He’d never seen such markings in his life. The box pulsed slightly, in and out, matching his breathing. He unclasped the box and lifted the lid. A rich, golden light flooded out, shining on his trembling hands. Noah tipped the box lid back on its hinges, letting the golden light fill the room.
The creature inside the box appeared. It was small, and slightly worm like. Three eyes appeared on thin, proboscis-like stalks that protruded from its head. More appendages – four, eight – emerged to grip the sides of the box so the creature could rear itself up. The golden light came from its worm-like body. Its body pulsed, like the box. One of the searching eyestalks focused on Noah, and the other two did the same. It emitted a thin, reedy sound – from where, Noah didn’t know, as it had no mouth – as it recognised him. It was twice its previous size, Noah saw with some unease. It had more limbs now, too. As that unearthly screech came again from the alien thing, Noah wondered what he would do if he couldn’t sell it before it got too big for the box. And he wondered if he was paying the price for his scams. The creature screamed again – the one truly inexplicable item he had ever possessed, and could not sell.