Silas Black was late. He was always late. Time, to a man like him, was a relative thing. A problem for someone else to worry about. Usually, the person waiting for him. He wore a watch but never used it. An observer would have noticed the watch didn’t show the correct time, so checking it would have been an exercise in futility. It also explained why, at that very moment, Silas was trying to determine the time by looking at the sun. Although it was obscured by clouds, he decided it was 9 o’clock. He was wrong.
Somewhere, not that far away, a storm was clearing its throat. Silas looked over his shoulder at the houses across the street. A thick blanket of clouds was reaching out over the rooftops. He judged the rain was about a mile and a half away. But he wasn’t good at guessing distances, either. He considered the speed of the storm, its distance from his current location, and the amount of time between now and when rain was falling on him. The last thing to come to his mind, though, was where he had left his umbrella.
He looked up at the old maple beside him. For a moment, he considered moving away from the tree, given the high likelihood of lightning. Yet, the entire street was shaded by similar, proud maples. These trees were so old that the sidewalk was punctured by their emergent roots. Silas looked at the neighborhood around him. Children probably rode bikes over the broken sidewalk. Men ambled down the road at a relaxed pace. Neighbors would smile and wave at passersby.
What a horrible way to live.
But Long Island still had a few surprises, as the detective was about to find out. An old woman was making her way across the street. She was pushing a rumpled, empty shopping cart. A plastic bag was tied around her head. As she reached Silas’s side of the street she paused. The old woman gazed at the stranger in his navy greatcoat. Silas stared back. She flipped him off. He felt more at home.
At the house nearest to Silas, a door popped open. Silas watched with curiosity at the man who stepped outside. He was small, a foot short than Silas, with strawberry hair that struggled to cover the smooth, bald head. A pair of glasses threatened to fall off his nose. He wore a green sweater vest over a striped shirt. It went well with the bowtie, as far as those things go.
“Good morning, Mr. Black,” the man said. He smiled, making his face rounder than Silas thought possible.
“Just call me Silas, George.” He shook George’s hand. It was clammy and warm. He wiped the moisture on his coat when George looked away.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice.” His voice carried an apologetic tone. George glanced up and down the street. Silas noted the faded English accent.
George turned back to the house. “Here it is. Nan’s place in all her glory.”
For the life of him, Silas couldn’t detect where George’s pride was coming from. It was a perfectly ordinary house. The most ordinary house he had ever seen. There was a second floor, like most houses. A bay window covered in heavy curtains. The only distinguishing element was the domed spire with the weather vane. It was twirling in the growing wind. The only other unique feature was the sign by the entrance that read, “The Toy Place.”
“Nan…” Silas said, trying to remember what that meant. “Oh, right. Your grandma.”
George nodded as he led Silas to the front door. He asked the detective to wait by the window.
“Just one moment.”
George darted inside, closing the door behind him. A second later the curtains parted like the opening of a play. Silas cupped his eyes as he looked through the glass.
The bay window was filled with puppets. A lot of puppets. There were court jesters, kings, ghosts, and even vampires. A nun swung mournfully from a string, a plastic sword through her neck. They swayed slowly in unison, as if being moved by some giant, invisible puppeteer. It reminded Silas of a gallows he once saw in Venice–a working gallows. George came back outside and stood proudly beside the window.
“So, what do you think?”
“I thought you said this was a toy store,” Silas said.
“These are toys,” George said.
“These are puppets.”
“Some are puppets,” George said in a patronizing way. “The others are marionettes.”
“Oh! Forgive my faux pas,” Silas said.
“Do you not like puppets, Silas?” he asked.
“I imagine you don’t see too many toys in your line of work,” George said.
“You’d be surprised.”
George led him into the house, rattling off some family history. Silas was only half-listening. It seemed his grandparents moved to America after “the War” and built the place. Nan always wanted her own shop, so they converted the front part of the house. Silas made the requisite “mm-hmm’s” and “oh’s” as George spoke.
They passed through a narrow hall and into the shop. In another life, it must have served as a sitting room. Every bit of space had been fitted with shelving for the toys. Dolls were lined up in rows, piled on top of each other, or squeezed behind glass displays. Girls in frilly dresses stared at him with painted eyes, waiting for children who would never come. A sea of marionettes hung from perforated ceiling tiles.
Silas felt claustrophobia clutching at his chest. He had never felt this way before, even when he was trapped in a coffin for seven hours. The room was dark, even with the lights on. Its air was stale and sticky. Silas walked back and forth, hoping to stir up a breeze. George sidled behind the counter.
“Can we get some more light in here, George?” the detective asked.
“No, sorry,” George said. “Too much light can damage the dolls. Some of these are antiques, you know.”
Silas unconsciously ran a finger over a countertop, coming back with a fine layer of dust. Rubbing it off with his thumb, he looked at George.
“Anything more to say?” he asked.
“I know I solve problems for a living,” Silas said, “but some information is appreciated.”
“Well, I thought ghost hunters–”
“I’m not a ghost hunter,” Silas said.
“Um, whatever you are, don’t you check for disturbances?”
“You want me to start in here?” Silas asked.
Silas muttered as he began searching the many pockets he had sewn into his greatcoat. He found something, pulled it out, and started moving about the room. He stopped every few seconds, consulting the object in his hand. George watched with eager nervousness. At several intervals, he raised a finger to ask the detective a question. He was only met with head shaking and “tsk’s.” Finally, the shop owner broke his silence.
“What is that in your hand?” he asked.
Silas paused, visibly annoyed, and showed George the device. It was a small, partially melted, plastic compass.
“Why are you using that?” George asked.
“This is a precision instrument in my line of work,” Silas said. “Got it for thirty cents at a garage sale.”
“But it’s a toy.”
“Then I’m in the right place.”
“I don’t see how you can detect ghosts–or whatever–with an old toy compass,” George said.
“Excuse me, are you the expert in paranormal phenomena?” Silas said. “Have you solved hundreds of unsolvable cases in the Greater New York Area–many for the NYPD?”
“Then don’t ask questions,” the detective said. He heard the shop owner let out a little harrumph noise. Silas stomped over to him. “For your information, a compass responds to the pull of magnetic North. But the alleged presence of paranormal entities interferes with that pull. So, when the needle isn’t pointing North, we’re onto something.”
“It wasn’t alleged,” the shop owner said.
“Then enlighten me, George. What happened in this room?”
“It’s… it’s a little hard to explain,” he said. “I feel mad even talking about it.”
“Comes with the territory,” Silas said. “I won’t think you’re mad.”
George let out a long sigh as he began his story. “As I said, this was my nan’s shop. I took over a few years ago, after she died. Nobody else in the family wanted to. They wanted the house, of course, but nan specified in her will the store had to stay open.”
Silas was swaying from side to side. “Let’s move a little faster, George.”
“Business wasn’t doing well,” he said. “I felt like I was letting nan down. So, I looked over her old books to see if there was something I could learn about the business. Tucked away in a ledger was a note she had left. For me.”
“You hadn’t seen it before that?” Silas asked.
“No,” George said. “I guess she had intended for me to read it once I inherited the store. Nan called me her favorite grandchild. Said she wanted me to succeed, just as she succeeded.”
“How did she know you were going to take over the store?” the detective asked.
“I–I don’t know,” he said. “Never thought about that before.”
“The note said there were specific instructions I was supposed to follow, for the shop.”
Silas scratched his chin as he thought. “What kind of instructions?”
“They were unusual,” George said. “I simply assumed she had business advice. Instead, she wanted me to read something. It sounded like a long poem–but it wasn’t in English. She had written out the words so I could pronounce them correctly.”
“I thought, what harm could it do to read it?”
“You still have this note, George?” Silas asked.
He fumbled with the cash register. The drawer slid open with a ding and he lifted the money tray. George passed a brown slip of paper to Silas. The detective bent under the only lamp in the room to read it. Thin, wispy handwriting, like spider’s legs, filled the paper from edge to edge. The ‘poem’ was at the bottom. Silas assumed the language was Latin. He could pick out a few familiar words. But the symbols scrawled in the letter’s corners were something else. Silas’s face darkened.
Folding up the note, he tucked it into a pocket. “So, did business pick up?”
“Actually, it did,” George said. “For a while. People seemed interested in the toys again. But, then queer things started to happen. Items were disappearing from the shop. I heard noises all through the house, even when I was alone. Customers returned their toys, saying their kids didn’t like them.”
He paused, swallowed hard, and looked around the room. “Finally, late one night, I saw ‘em myself.”
George’s voice was a whisper. “The toys… they were coming to life.”
“I assumed you were going to say that,” Silas said. “Of course, that’s the problem. It’s a creepy old toy shop. It’s not like you have talking mice or something easy like that.”
“D-do you believe me?” he asked.
“Seeing is believing, George.” Silas walked over to a display and picked up one of the dolls. It was a clown, the French kind with a conical hat and white, ruffled neck gear.
“Bonjour,” Silas said to the puppet. “My name is Silas. What’s yours?”
The clown stared back at him with lifeless eyes.
“I’m not crazy, Silas,” George said.
“Never said you were.” Silas waved a hand at the doll. “Wakey, wakey, pitre. Time to play.” He shook the doll like a dog with a chew toy. He bounced it against the glass. Nothing.
“Why don’t you try talking to it, George.”
Silas tossed the clown at the counter. Instead of bouncing away, it somersaulted and landed on its feet. It bowed to George and turned around. Snarling at Silas, it revealed its small, very pointy, teeth.
“Good news, George. You’re not crazy.”
The curtains fell over the window and the room went black. Hundreds of tiny bodies started to writhe. Dolls banged against their glass cases, struggled against the strings that bound them, and climbed down off shelves. They all focused on one object, the detective.
Silas ran to the door. He tripped on something and hit the floor. Dolls scurried over him like spiders, searching for bare skin. When they found some, they dug their teeth in. Silas screamed, rolling across the ground like he was on fire. He called for George. The shop owner was huddled under the counter, sobbing.
Silas managed to get a hand into a coat pocket. He found another tool that never failed him, his Zippo lighter. With a flick, an orange glow filled the room. Dolls dropped from his body, cawing at the small flame. Silas got to his feet, holding out the Zippo like a shield. Blood oozed down his face, collecting under his shirt collar. He stared at the puppets, which hissed at him from the shadows.
“What a bunch of bastards,” he said. “George, you alive?”
There was a whimper. “Yes, sir.”
“Why didn’t you warm me they’d attack?”
“They’ve never done this before,” the shopkeeper said. “They must not like you.”
“Yeah, I put that together,” Silas said.
Still holding out the lighter, he backed around the counter to find George.
George obeyed. He jumped back with a shout when he saw the toys gathering around the counter. They snapped their teeth at the men. But they kept away from Silas’s Zippo.
“Oh, they’re afraid of the fire,” George said.
“Of course. They’re wood and dried cloth,” Silas said. “Thank goodness your nan wasn’t fond of asbestos.”
“Be careful with that flame, though,” George said. “This is an old house.”
Silas glared at him. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
The French clown doll made a sudden jump for Silas’s hand. It bit down, its small teeth sinking into his skin. Silas cursed and dropped the Zippo. There was a tiny cry of victory as the doll fell beneath the lighter. By the time the clown hit the floor, it was ablaze.
Silas pulled George by the collar and backed out of the room. Closing the door, the detective grabbed a giant antique chair and wedged it in.
“Do you think that will hold them?” George asked.
“Not forever.” Silas looked around. They were in a sitting room, complete with musty furniture and thick, moldy drapes. He heard the ticking of a grandfather clock but saw none.
“Are there dolls in the rest of the house?” he asked George.
“Only a few. Those under repair.”
“Now that we have a minute, can you explain to me how this is possible?” George said.
“What was your last name again?” Silas asked.
Silas laughed. “I should have guessed.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Your grandma was a witch, George,” Silas said. “It must have been the family business. The dolls acted as her familiars. Spirits were attached to the wooden bodies and forced to do her bidding. Even in death, they still serve her.”
“My nan was a saint,” George said. “She was no witch.” There was an unfortunately timed squeal as the door shook.
“She left that note hoping you’d read the spell and bring back her dolls,” Silas said. Another push set the door rocking.
“Why did she want me to do that?” George asked.
“That’s a very good question,” Silas said. “I don’t know. But the good news is I can break the spell, with the note.”
“You can? How, will you read it backwards?”
“Don’t be silly. I’m going to–”
The antique chair fell over and the door opened. Silas and George were knocked to the ground as a sea of dolls came crashing into the room. Silas’s face was pressed to the ground as dolls trampled him. George was out cold. The detective crawled over to him and tried to rouse him. A child-size marionette landed on Silas’s back. He felt wooden hands search his pockets. Pushing off from the floor, he rammed himself into the wall. There was a crunch and the doll fell off.
Silas ducked as a blur of brown swooped over him. A monkey grabbed something from the floor and ran from the room. He checked his pockets. Nan’s note was missing. Silas watched as the monkey disappeared around a corner. Silas checked George. He was out but breathing. Pulling him up by the armpits, the detective dragged George into the next room. He kept his head low, avoiding the puppets that jumped at his face.
Reaching the kitchen, he pulled a sliding door shut. The room reeked of mildew. George was as bad a housekeeper as he was a shop owner. The decor was somewhere between the tacky 1950s and the even tackier 1970s. Bulging tiles popped under Silas’s feet. Aggressive colors stabbed his eyes from the wall. Propping up George against the wall, he searched the room. It was small, but there were plenty of places for a monkey to hide.
“Here monkey, monkey.”
A chair shook and the toy jumped to the ceiling. It hung from a rack above the oven, staring at Silas with a large, painted smile. It clutched nan’s note in a plastic claw.
“There’s a nice monkey.” Silas took a tentative step.
The toy’s head did a Linda Blair, revealing a second face. It was a grimace that sneered at Silas. The monkey waved the note mockingly.
“All right, we’ll do it the hard way.”
Silas sidled over to the kitchen sink, pulling a knife from the drain. He pointed it at the monkey. It seemed to understand the gesture. Flipping end-over-end, it landed on the table. Silas awkwardly lunged. The monkey jumped away as he slammed into the table. His feet were tangled in the legs of a chair and down he went. Silas was sure he heard a cackle as a door in the corner opened and closed.
Standing up and discarding his knife, Silas went to the door. A dark flight of stairs led down to the basement. Silas searched for a light switch but came up empty. Taking out a pen light, he descended. His boots thudded against the steps like drums. Pausing, he listened for signs of movement. He only heard his breathing.
The darkness was too strong for his pen light. Silas squinted, hopelessly waiting for his eyes to adjust. With a hand on the wall, he felt his way to the bottom. He stepped on something hard and twisted his ankle. Silas shouted in pain and dropped his light.
“Do be careful. I wouldn’t want you to hurt anything.”
The voice crinkled like old leather.
“Too late,” Silas said, “I think I bruised my ankle.”
“I wasn’t talking about you.”
Silas felt along the floor. It was covered in small, crumbly stones.
“What the hell, is this a coal cellar?” he said.
“It was, a long time ago,” said the voice. “We put in a gas furnace around 1963. I believe the electric one came in 82.”
“Who are you?” Silas asked. “George didn’t mention a roommate.”
“This is my home. What are you doing here?”
“Looking for a light switch,” Silas said.
“I prefer the dark.”
“Well, I don’t.”
He found an old, electrical switch. Silas turned it and greasy, pale light washed over the basement.
“Aw, damn.” He wished he kept the light off.
The ground wasn’t covered in coal, but bones. Thousands of tiny bones. They carpeted the cellar from one end to the other. Most of them were yellow with age. Silas assumed they were from animals until he saw the skulls.
“God, were these children?” he said.
To Silas’s delight, he discovered the source of the voice. Resting comfortably in a rocking chair was the desiccated remains of an old woman. She wore a faded apron over a blue dress. Horn-rimmed glasses sat on her flaking skull. Strands of hair still clung to it, snaking down and wrapping around the legs of the chair. Slowly, it rocked back and forth.
Empty eye sockets stared at Silas through the lenses.
“What are you doing here,” she said, “Blackghoul?”
“Ooo, you are a witch,” Silas said. “My family shortened our lastname to Black. Silas Black.”
“You have no authority here,” George’s nan said. “This is my domain.”
“Don’t try to scare me with your witch lingo,” Silas said. “You left this house to George when you died. He gave me access when he hired me. I have a right to be here. See? I know my business.”
The dead witch groaned. It was a guttural sound that echoed off the walls.
“You will not rob me of my children.”
“Is that what you call them?” Silas said. “You murdered real children, stuck their lifeforce into toys. Those aren’t children. They’re abominations.”
“Don’t lecture me, half-breed,” she said. “You know nothing of my ways.”
“Look what they’ve done for you,” Silas said. “Stuck in a rocking chair for all eternity. And I gotta tell ya granny, you look terrible.”
“I am not stuck in this chair.” Silas sensed laughter in her voice. “Now that George has awakened my children, I am free to do as I please.”
“I’m going to have to rain on that parade,” the detective said.
“Not without my spell.”
“Oh, you mean this?” Silas held up the note. “It seems I crushed your monkey friend when I twisted my ankle.”
“Are you telling me, you’d use the very magic you despise?” she asked.
Silas scanned Nan’s writing. “Not exactly. Magic might seem mysterious to the uninitiated, but it’s simple. Like software, magic runs on programming. That’s what spells are. To reverse the effects of magic, all you have to do is delete the original file.”
“Oh, that’s right you’re a grandma,” he said. “Let me put it this way. Magic is dependent on the means by which it was cast. Pretty flimsy system, if you ask me. Since this curse was released through the reading of an incantation, all I have to do is destroy the original to break it. Like this.”
Silas tore the note in half. There was a tangible pop, like static electricity. Then nothing. Nan laughed.
“Tear it up as much as you like, child.”
“Shouldn’t have dropped my lighter,” Silas said.
He didn’t have time to think about it, though. The rocking chair fell back as the witch lunged at him. Silas only had time to stuff the halves of note into his pocket before her gnarled hands were wrapped around his throat. Nan was stronger than Silas was willing to admit. She pinned him against the wall, her fingers tightening. He stared into the corpse’s empty eye sockets.
“This image is going to be with me for a while.”
“You have no power here,” she said.
“Not true,” Silas said, forcing out the words. “It is generally known (by the sort of people who study these things) that demons are weak to iron.”
“Don’t you ever shut up?”
“No. Not everyone knows this also applies to a variety of malevolence. In a convenient form like a horseshoe, iron can hurt even a dead witch.”
“I see no horseshoe,” Nan said.
“Always keep one in my boot.”
Silas stomped down on nan’s foot. The witch shrieked and let him go. Gasping for air, Silas ran upstairs. He found the hallway that led back to the front of the house. A door separated him from the toy shop and his lighter.
He turned the knob. Locked.
Nan’s voice bounced off the walls. The dead witch flew up the basement stairs. The dolls were getting wilder now, thrashing like locusts in a storm. Silas went up to the second floor. He ran into a bedroom and slammed the door closed. Silas dragged a dresser in front of the door. Running to a bedside table, he ransacked the drawers.
“Gotta be matches somewhere.”
He emptied drawer after drawer of doilies onto the bed.
“Come on George, what’s wrong with you?”
The top half of the bedroom door burst open. Nan was pulling herself through, snarling. Silas opened a window and climbed onto the roof. He ran to the other end and stared at a thirty-foot drop to the ground.
“Good job, Black, you’re gonna die on a roof.”
Thunder rankled the sky. Storm clouds swept over the neighborhood. Nan emerged, her crooked arms stretched out in front of her. What was left of her hair stood on end. Silas felt energy crackle through the air. The witch was muttering something deep and guttural. She was preparing a spell. He could almost sparks come off her dead body.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Silas said.
The witch ignored him, her voice growing louder. Silas watched the sky behind her grow brighter. Reaching into his pocket he pulled out the pieces of note. Silas crumpled them up.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
He tossed the paper at Nan and hugged the roof. The sky went white as the witch’s magic drew a stray bolt of lightning. The corpse didn’t stand a chance. Nan’s cries of pain were drowned out by the explosion. She, along with the note and a large chunk of roof, was destroyed.
Silas was thrown from the roof. His long coat snagged on the weather vane. He swung like a pendulum, smacking against the side of the house. Getting his feet on a window sill, he freed his coat, kicked out the window, and made his way to George. By the time he got the shop owner out, most of the house was burning.
It took more than a little explaining to convince George of what happened. He sat on the curb across the street and watched firefighters put out his house. Plumes of smoke rose like fingers, grasping at the storm clouds. It was raining steadily by then. Despite the weather, plenty of neighbors had gathered to watch. George wiped his lenses with a finger and made Silas go over the story again.
“You say my nan was in the basement?”
“And you set her on fire?”
“Technically, the lightning set her on fire,” Silas said.
“The toys, then. They’re all gone?” George asked.
“The spell’s broken,” Silas said. “The fire destroyed what was left of them.”
“Oh.” George sounded disappointed.
Silas slapped the man on the shoulder. “I’m sure insurance will cover the damages. If you find a Zippo, drop it in the mail.”
They heard the sound of galloping horses. It was coming from Silas’s coat. He reached into a pocket and pulled out his phone.
“Wow, unscathed.” He answered it. “Who is it? Haven’t heard from you in a while. Where? I think I can make it. Sure, six o’clock.”
He snapped the phone shut.
“I never went in the basement,” George said. “Always gave me the creeps.”
“Lesson learned,” Silas said. “Always go into the basement. But it’s time for me to go.”
George looked up at him, his eyes big like a puppy’s.
“Yes, George. I wasn’t going to stay. But cheer up, you’ll hear from me again.”
“Of course.” He placed a hand on George’s shoulder. “You owe me six hundred dollars.”