Mystery Writers of America Presents The Mystery Box


Edited by Brad Meltzer

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There’s nothing more mysterious than a locked box. Whether it’s a literal strongbox, an empty coffin, the inner workings of a scientist’s mind, or an underground prison cell, there are those who will use any means necessary to unlock the secrets of…The Mystery Box.

With this anthology, bestselling author Brad Meltzer introduces twenty-one original stories from today’s most prominent mystery writers. In Laura Lippman’s “Waco 1982,” a young reporter stuck with a seemingly mundane assignment on lost-and-found boxes unwittingly discovers a dark crime. In Joseph Finder’s “Heirloom,” a scheming neighbor frightens the new couple on the block with an unnerving tale of buried treasure. In R.L. Stine’s “High Stakes,” a man on his honeymoon gets drawn into a bizarre bet involving a coffin–a bet he may pay for with his life.

From the foothills of Mount Fuji to Georgia’s Okefenokee Swamp, from a physics laboratory in wartime Leipzig to an unusual fitness club in Boca Raton, these sometimes terrifying, sometimes funny, and always suspenseful tales will keep you riveted to the page.


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It won't hurt," they told me.

Right there, I was skeptical. Sure, the folks at the Mystery Writers of America seem like nice people. And they like mysteries (which is extra nice). But when they walked in with those nice smiles and asked me to be the editor of this year's MWA anthology, I knew I was in for some pain—especially when they said it'd be easy.

But then the MWA folks added that one key phrase that every writer longs to hear: "We'll do all the work for you."

See how tricky these bastards are?

My reaction was instantaneous: "I'm in."

Then, in a bit of verbal fine print, they delivered the final piece of news: "You have to invite ten of your friends to write stories."

Wait. So beyond all this heavy lifting I don't have to do, I also get to work with ten dear friends, all of whom will use their gorgeous talents to make me look good?

"Count me in. I'll do your next thirty anthologies."

And so, this book was born. The theme would be a mystery box. What's in the box? That was for our writers to decide: a long-lost gun, a personal secret, or Gwyneth Paltrow's head (just like in Seven). The box could be real (like the gun), or metaphoric (like their heart). But they had to use a box.

All I needed after that were friends—the real secret ingredient—whose talents I have admired for years. Let me say it as clearly as I can: I love every writer in this book. And I owe every writer in this book. They are the ones who solved and then shared their secrets. But what I appreciate most is simply their friendship and generosity.

So thank you to my dear friends Steve Berry, Jim Born, Jan Burke, Joe Finder, Laura Lippman, Katherine Neville, Karin Slaughter, Tom Rob Smith, R. L. Stine, and Charles Todd for volunteering and for sharing. I feel truly honored that each of you said yes. I'm thrilled to have each of you in my life. And I know every editor of these anthologies thinks they have the best group of writers. They are all wrong. We have the best. And that's not even all.

A huge thanks also goes to Tony Broadbent, Angela Gerst, Joseph Goodrich, Libby Fischer Hellmann, S. W. Hubbard, Mary Anne Kelly, C. E. Lawrence, R. T. Lawton, Catherine Mambretti, Stephen Ross, and Jonathan Stone for doing the hardest things of all: putting themselves out there and sharing their own secrets. To everyone reading this: Go buy all their books. Please.

A special thank-you also goes to incredible miracle workers Barry Zeman of MWA and Larry Segriff of Tekno Books, who kept true to their promises and did all the real work. They are the reasons this book exists, and I thank them for their never-ending patience with me. And yes, it truly was painless.

Special thanks also to all the judges who helped read the volumes of submissions: Peter Blauner, Wendy Hornsby, Annette Meyers, Kris Montee, and T. Jefferson Parker, all of them wonderful writers themselves. Thank you to my secret weapons in publishing: Mitch Hoffman, Lindsey Rose, Jamie Raab, and all my dear friends at Grand Central Publishing. Thank you to Noah Kuttler, who is the best. And finally, thank you to Cori, Jonas, Lila, and Theo, for being the secret in my own mystery box, and for always having faith.



The murder of my beloved great-aunt, Miss Edith Montague, always known in our small but enterprising town as a most amiable woman, came as a tremendous shock to her nearest and dearest.

Since I am her only surviving heir, I suppose her nearest and dearest would be me. She was one of two children of the founder of Montague Manufacturing, my great-grandfather, the inventor Marcus Montague, for whom I was named in a shameless attempt by my parents to curry her favor. The other child, the ne'er-do-well from whom I am descended, squandered his portion of his inheritance and died destitute. An annual allotment from Aunt Edith allowed my parents to live fairly comfortably during their brief lives.

The woman I called Aunt Edith (from the start, she gently told me she preferred this to "great-aunt") was in complete control of the sizable Montague fortune.

As her sole heir, I might have been placed in the awkward position of being suspect number one, if I hadn't had an undisputed alibi on the night of her murder. At the time of her death, you see, I was having dinner with the chief of police.

Occasionally fate makes up for all its cruel tricks by actually doing one a good turn. That one, however, was hardly enough to make up for the loss of Aunt Edith.

She had taken me in after my parents died of typhoid fever—the illness apparently the result of hiring a rather unsanitary cook. Had my parents not sent me to boarding school, I probably would have met the same destiny. This was perhaps the only reason I ever had to be grateful for being sent to the Billingsfield Academy, although at the time I probably would have chosen typhoid fever over the torments meted out by the headmaster and my classmates. Aunt Edith, nearly the only relative who showed any concern for my welfare, rescued me from them.

Another unmarried, wealthy lady of a certain age might have found the unexpected responsibility of raising a ten-year-old boy daunting, but Aunt Edith seemed overjoyed at the prospect. She brought me to live with her. Indeed, over the next fifteen years she gave me more kindness and attention than I had received from my own fun-loving but rather negligent parents.

I said she was nearly the only relative, because I suppose I must give some credit to my somewhat misguided uncle Gilbert, whom I had never met. He was not actually my uncle, but some sort of cousin of my father. Aunt Edith told me he was her favorite relative, a salesman who traveled a great deal, and said it with a kind of twinkle in her eye that made me wonder things I dared not ask. He occasionally sent odd packages—never twice from the same address—with terse notes. In general, the contents were designed to ensure that although I was being raised by a maiden aunt, I was exposed to masculine entertainments. As I aged, they grew increasingly risqué.

He should have known that Aunt Edith was not the type to tie a boy to her apron strings, and indeed, she made sure I met and made friends with other males. If it was Uncle Gilbert who sent the pair of stilts, it was Aunt Edith who encouraged me to give them a try and, as in other areas of my life, cheered my successes and patched me up after my failures. Uncle Gilbert might send me packets of French postcards, but it was she who arranged for a male friend to discuss the facts of life with me in a no-nonsense fashion. I always had the suspicion she would have done so herself, but she rightly assumed I would have been mortified to hear of such things from her.

In almost every other sort of life lesson, she was my guiding light, an example I tried to emulate. She was someone whose confidence in me steadied me enough to leave the past behind and look forward. I knew that in the natural course of things, she would most likely predecease me, but not this soon. And not in this horrible way.

Jenksville is normally a peaceful community. Our entire police force consists of fifteen individuals. So the evening of Wednesday, May third, the night she was murdered, it did not take the officer sent by our single detective very long to locate the detective's uncle, Chief Irons, who was enjoying a good cigar and a fine brandy at Jenksville's best restaurant. The other fourteen members of the force knew where we were, because throughout the day, they had been hopeful that at some point during that dinner, I would hand the chief a check from my aunt, a donation large enough to help the department buy its first automobile. As usual, she did not seek publicity for her generosity. I'm sure Chief Irons was secretly relieved to have the check in hand before events took our minds away from dinner.

Some hours later I stood motionless in the center of the room in which Aunt Edith had died, staring at disorder that was entirely foreign to it, trying not to look at the bloodstained carpet. It was a room she had used as a study, the place where she kept her business records, wrote correspondence, made telephone calls, held committee meetings, and read quietly before the fireplace.

One end of the room was lined in bookshelves, now in some disarray. Detective Mortimer Osburn was at the opposite side, leaning his ample posterior against the handsome tiger maple desk where Aunt Edith had spent part of each day.

The clock over the elaborately carved mantel had run down, and so had I, although Detective Osburn seemed as oblivious of this fact as he was of any possible clues.

"So, to review," he said, not for the first time, "your cook and housekeeper, Mrs. McCray, who does not reside on the premises, has worked here for some time?"

"She has spent nearly twenty years working for my aunt, and is entirely trustworthy. She is so distraught that I have given her the week off, but she and her husband live nearby—in a home my aunt bought for her as a wedding present—and I'm sure she would be happy to answer any questions you may have for her."

"No, no, that's all right—known her all my life. In fact, I helped her when she fell and broke her arm a few months ago."

"Yes, my aunt told me about that. She was grateful for your assistance. And I'm sure you know Mrs. McCray has recovered."

He shifted his weight. "As for Mrs. McCray, officially, you see, I have to ask these questions."

I stared at him in disbelief. "Surely only once?"

His ears grew red, and he consulted his notes again, muttering something about never knowing "what might occur to a person on reexamination." He cleared his throat and said, "Yes, well, Mrs. McCray, who does not reside on the premises, admitted four individuals into the home at seven this evening."

I took out my pocket watch. "As of an hour ago, yesterday evening."

"Yes, well, I apologize, Mr. Montague, I do realize it is very late, but I want to make sure I have all of this straight before I leave. Last time, I promise, then I'll be on my way. I wouldn't want you to feel it necessary to hire outside help."

At last I saw what this dithering and delay was all about. Clorinda.

For a moment I considered reassuring Osburn that the odds of Clorinda Ainsbury's involving herself in this case were remote indeed. Instead I wound my watch, returned it to my vest, and waited for the fourth recitation of the few facts at Osburn's disposal.

Osburn went back to his notes.

"Mrs. McCray left not long after she admitted Mrs. Wainwright, Mr. Dillon, Miss Freedman, and Mrs. Conrad. All were expected as visitors today."

"It was a meeting of the Jenksville Opera Society."

"I've been meaning to ask—just the four of them. Executive committee?"

"The entire society."

Osburn raised his brows.

"My aunt did not intend to perform. If you heard the other four sing, you'd understand why it has been of limited interest to their fellow citizens."

Osburn snorted a laugh, but I regretted the words as soon as they were out of my mouth. Aunt Edith would never have said anything cutting about anyone of her acquaintance, a forbearance I found infinitely admirable and impossible to imitate. Whenever I had said as much to her, a sparkle would come into her eyes and she would smile sweetly. Then she would say that someday she would tell me the secret of her ability to hold her tongue, but in the meantime, she found my observations so amusing, she begged me not to withhold them from her. I don't know if she really did find them amusing, but it was like Aunt Edith to never make one feel as if one were at fault.

"Perhaps I haven't a proper appreciation for their art," I said to Osburn. "In any case, I cannot believe any of them would want to harm their patron."

"My unc—er, Chief Irons will find out soon enough."

Wisely, his uncle had decided to ask additional questions of the witnesses himself at the station. "My deepest sympathies, Marcus," the chief said to me as he prepared to take his leave. "Your aunt was a fine woman who will be deeply missed." He unthinkingly reached to pat the pocket in which he had placed the check, caught himself at it, then offered his condolences again. He left the house just after the coroner removed Aunt Edith's body.

Now, several hours later, Osburn scratched his head. "Truth is, sir, I can't think of anyone in Jenksville who'd want to harm her. That's why I'm sure it had to be a stranger. Some thief!"

"There are many valuable items in this room. Why would a thief leave them behind?"

"Something or someone scared him off."

I made no comment.

"You left the house at seven-thirty?"

"Yes, and as I've said, drove to the police station, where I met Chief Irons. I took him to dinner."

"Yes, of course. And you heard no arguing or anything of that sort?"

"No. But the garage is at the back of the property, where the stables once were. I left through the back door, and didn't walk past this room or interrupt the meeting to say good-bye."

I felt my throat tighten, then chided myself for wishing for something that could not change. I did not stop to say good-bye. I did not know… could not have known…

"The Opera Society meeting lasted until eight-thirty," Osburn said. "Then all four left together. Mr. Dillon drove the ladies home, then realized that he had left his notebook here and returned. That was at some time after nine, he said, and he was considering not disturbing your aunt at such an hour, until he saw the lights were still on. Then he noticed the front door was ajar and came in, and found—"

"Yes. I heard him tell Chief Irons what happened after that." I couldn't bear another recitation of the story of Mr. Dillon's discovery of my aunt's body, lying before the hearth. She had apparently received a single, mighty blow to the back of her head as she stood in front of the fireplace. The police had arrived quickly, but she was already dead. The coroner believed she was killed instantly. She had not suffered, but that fact alone is not the healing comfort some seem to think it will be to the bereaved. A death in the family will teach you that people are capable of saying the damnedest things.

"So the only thing that's missing is a wooden box?" Osburn asked again.

"I can't be sure. I will need to put the room in order again, and attempt to do a complete survey, but so far, it seems to be the only thing that is gone. Whoever was in here apparently searched for it until he or she discovered the false bottom of that desk drawer."

Again I confirmed to him that the only thing missing was the large, locked wooden box in which my aunt had stored receipts, canceled checks, and old bills. The bank would be notified in the morning to be especially vigilant regarding forgeries or other problems with my aunt's account, but I still could not see why someone alone in the house would overlook items in the other rooms, such as expensive jewelry, priceless works of art, and the silver pieces in the dining room. Even here in the study, in the very desk he had rooted through, a large sum of cash had been left behind. Why leave that and other valuable items in the desk and take only that box?

Osburn hinted that it might be best if he remained to guard me, but this service I quickly declined. Eventually he left.

Although it was the very thing I had been hoping he would do for several hours, I found myself wanting even his obnoxious company not long after he was gone. Alone, I began to realize that his dull conversation had distanced me from my own thoughts and feelings.

I was still in a state of shock, wishing I could find relief in tears but not really able to believe that my aunt was dead, let alone that someone had murdered her.

I decided I could not face spending another moment in the study. I locked the front and back doors and ensured that the windows were latched. It was a warm evening, but I decided I would rather suffer heat than a return of the intruder.

I reached my bedroom and was debating whether I should close my window, which was, after all, upstairs and at the back of the house, when I heard someone in the alley.

I was frightened, but I have a pistol and have practiced with it faithfully. I took it and a flashlight from my nightstand and hurried outside.

Someone was rummaging around near the garage.

"Who's there?" I called. "Come out now—I'm armed and won't hesitate to shoot."

"Don't shoot!" an all-too-familiar voice said.

"Detective Osburn," I said, lowering my weapon.

"I was just making sure your back gate is secure."

"Detective Osburn, it is now after two in the morning. Go home. Now. I don't mean to be rude, but really, if I see you around the house again, I will be forced to report to your uncle that you have been pestering me."

He left.

I went back into the house, relocked the doors, went upstairs, put the gun and flashlight away, and undressed.

I finally wept—of all the stupid things to set me off, it was donning an old pair of pajamas she had given me—and lay awake until exhaustion finally blessed me with a dreamless sleep.

I awakened at dawn to find a body in my bed.

This one was alive, warm, and naked.

"Clorinda?" I said drowsily, thinking I must still be asleep and dreaming.

"Hush, darling," she said, and sealed my lips with a kiss.

For once I wasn't going to argue with her.

Clorinda is willowy, stronger than she looks, and wears her dark brown hair bobbed. She is not quite a beauty—if forced to name her best feature, I suppose I would mention her large, dark eyes. Or perhaps her slightly husky voice. Or the curve of her lips—something about them always makes her look as if she has a delightful secret you want to know, without making her look smug about it. But it is the sum total of her Clorinda-ness that draws me to her. If I were blind, I would still love her.

She is intelligent, independent, and strong-willed. She has her own private investigations agency and is an avid suffragist. She does not suffer fools, which is why what I thought of as a romance and she thought of as experimentation went awry three months ago.

We had slept together, I had offered marriage, and she had told me she never wanted to speak to me again. And proved she meant it.

But she had just now said, "Hush, darling." I told myself not to be a fool. And made mad if not quite silent love to her.

I know what you are thinking, some of you. You are thinking that this was disrespectful of my aunt. In the interest of proving you wrong, I will continue my tale.

When we had caught our breath, I humiliated myself by weeping again, although I had not wanted to do so in front of her. She didn't ridicule me for it, merely held me until I quieted. "I'm so sorry, Marcus."

I couldn't speak for some time, but finally managed to say, "How did you get in?"

"Lockpicks. It has taken me months to get the hang of it."

"I would have let you in."

"I wasn't sure."

Clorinda, unsure? A new experience. I decided this was not the moment to say so.

"I know you weren't expecting me," she went on, demonstrating a mastery of understatement, "but I loved Edith, and her death has made me reconsider a number of things. I thought you might need a friend."

That last, distancing word might have been crushing under other circumstances, but I was too wrung out to worry about my failed love life. I merely nodded.

"I hurried over as soon as I read the newspaper," she said.

"Oh God. The newspaper. Reporters. Gaaagh!" I pulled the covers over my head. Clorinda had bribed someone at the paper to ensure that she received one of the first copies off the press, but it was only a matter of time before its later readers would demand sordid details that could not have made the morning edition.

"Don't worry, Irons is distracting them with a lot of nonsense about hobos."

I emerged from my bed-linen lair. "Hobos?"

"Marcus, of course a stranger will be blamed! No one in Jenksville will want to believe that the murderer of a respected and beloved elderly lady might be living next door, shopping at the same shops they do, sitting next to them in the pew at church. Chief Irons has already sent officers down to the hobo camp just outside of town, near the railroad tracks."

"Oh dear."

"Yes. It's a pity. The men there are already facing hard times."

"I hope no one suffers too much in the chief's quest to find a suspect."

"He knows he needs to make some sort of arrest soon or face an angry citizenry, but perhaps he'll do so without using the very tactics your aunt tried to persuade him are ineffective."

"I suppose it will now be my job to keep bribing him into better behavior."

"One of the best possible uses of your money," she agreed, rising and beginning to dress.

I couldn't help myself. "You aren't leaving?"

"Of course not. But I think it would be best if we wore clothing downstairs. You're bound to have loads of callers."

I groaned.

"Irons can put that idiot nephew of his out front to turn them away. It would be a better use of his time than his so-called investigating. Ring him up and ask him to do it."

"It seems cruel to turn away those who want to grieve for her."

"You'll see them later. You don't want a lot of rubbernecking buzzards poking their beaks in here."


"Get dressed. I'll make breakfast."

"You are giving a lot of orders this morning."

She smiled. "So I am. You can take a turn at it later if you'd like, but just now you probably need a little help to get going."

I couldn't deny it.

We eventually ended up exactly where I knew she most wanted to be, and if asked, I would have readily included my bed among the places that ranked much lower in interest to her. She observed the study and I observed her doing so. She moved slowly, stood at different places in the room, even climbed onto a chair at one point to get something like a bird's-eye view of the scene of the crime. There was one brief moment when I saw sadness cross her face as she looked down at the bloodstain on the carpet—then she shocked me by lowering herself next to it and asking me to position her as my aunt had been found. I complied.

She rose to her feet again and studied the mantel. My great-grandfather had commissioned the work of a master woodcarver to cover the columns, front piece, and sides with lions in various poses—some roaring, some springing upon prey, some in stately repose. The mantel had terrified me when I was a child.

Clorinda asked a few questions—most of them quite different in nature from the ones Osburn had asked.

"The intruder searched this room after he or she struck Edith down. Do you agree?"

"Yes. Aunt Edith wouldn't have allowed someone to search while she was here, and there was no sign that she had been anywhere else in the house after the meeting."

"And you agree she was given no opportunity to struggle? That this disarray was the result of the search, not a fight?"



I frowned. "The way things are left. The lamp is not knocked over. Nothing breakable is smashed, the desk is the only piece of furniture out of place. She… she had no marks on her, other than the single blow, so all that adds up to a surprise attack rather than a fight."

"Excellent. I agree."

"And even the search—the desk is a mess, and things have been pulled forward on shelves, books tossed down, and so on, but the cushions are on the chairs, and not ripped open. Perhaps it's because I know the box was taken, but I think the intruder found what he was looking for."

"Perhaps so. The grate is clean—no fire last night?"

"No. It was too warm for a fire."

"For you or me, but older women sometimes experience temperature differently."

"Yes, I understand," I said, "but there was no fire."

"So why was your aunt staring at the fireplace?"

"I don't know that she was. She was just—No, wait. The clock!" I said, suddenly seeing what Clorinda was trying to determine.

She frowned at it. "It stopped at eleven-fourteen."

"I noticed last night that it had run down. Even the clock couldn't outlast Osburn. Aunt Edith always wound them on Wednesday."

"Winding, Wednesday. All right. Does she—did she do that in the morning?"

"No, in the evening, usually after dinner. But she would have put it off last night until after the meeting."

"Hmm. Would she have locked the front door after her guests left?"

"No. I don't think half the people in town do."

"They will now. Fearing hobos, I'm sure." She opened the slender pocket watch I had given her to commemorate the day New York fully enfranchised women, a milestone reached, in part, because of her work.

I moved to the clock and opened the ornately painted glass door of its case. I was surprised to see not one but two brass clock keys, then decided that Aunt Edith might have kept the clock keys together as she made her rounds.

Clorinda distracted me by saying, "I detest people who disguise their nosiness as sympathy, and I believe you will soon be inundated by such. Make the call to the chief, please."

"Right." I put the clock keys in my vest pocket and moved toward the telephone on the desk.

"Ah, the telephone! Another sign that she was away from the desk and probably never saw the intruder," Clorinda said. "She might have used the telephone otherwise."

"Unless he threatened her with a pistol."

"A possibility, but I think he would have forced her to reveal the location of the wooden box to him, then, and spared himself the effort of searching for it."


I asked the operator to connect me with the police, and within minutes a patrol officer was dispatched to my aunt's home. Although the chief had not sent his nephew, Clorinda agreed with me that this was for the best—satisfying her thirst for petty revenge on Osburn was not worth dealing with his paranoia about her investigative abilities. "Besides, I know Duffy. He's the best of that lot over there. The chief wants you to be pleased."

Officer Duffy was equally gratified to see her. "Now we'll get somewhere, sir," he confided to me. "Miss Ainsbury's worth a hundred of Osburn. Smart of you to call her in."

He then seated himself in the foyer. As Clorinda had predicted, a steady flow of visitors began to arrive on the doorstep soon after. I overheard Duffy saying that they must not disturb the master of the house and that he was sure an announcement of arrangements would be made before long.

Master of the house. Arrangements. I resolutely turned back to the study and Clorinda. The master of the house didn't want to be such and had no stomach for arrangements.

I was brought up short by the sight of Clorinda standing on a chair, looking down on the mantel clock.

She heard me enter, and when she turned toward me I saw that her eyes were bright with excitement. "Close the door, please," she said just above a whisper. "And lock it, in case someone should get past Duffy."


On Sale
Apr 30, 2013
Page Count
384 pages