A Cage for A Curse

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Devil's Eye“According to the lore we’ve been able to dig up, a person only has to wear the necklace once, and for only a few hours, before the effects take hold.  The science supports this.”

“So it’s like being exposed to radiation?  Or an infectious agent.  Done is done.”

Agent Mars Dietrich nodded to his boss, the division director.  He had been on the case for a few days now.  Dietrich investigated the supernatural and the paranormal.  But he was far too interested in everything to become an expert in any one thing.  Because of that, he was known for making connections between cases in various divisions from the supernatural to the scientific to the cosmic.  The object of his current investigation had just gone from being a curiosity to a confirmed danger.

A necklace.  Rare and beautiful.  Priceless.  And cursed.  

It came to the Agency’s attention by a circuitous route.  The necklace first went to the Academy, one of the top scholarly institutes that the Agency had a “secret” partnership with.  Its owner wanted to assure that it was not an antiquity belonging to some other country.  Or belonging in a museum.  It was an interesting piece, but didn’t seem particularly special.  One of the Academy’s archaeologists took a look at it.  She and her team couldn’t figure out the gemstone, so they took it to their gemology department, who also couldn’t identify it.  They asked for assistance from the chemistry and physics departments.  That was where Dr. Falcon came in.  He was a quantum physicist on loan from the Academy to be a subject matter expert resource for the Agency.  The Academy council reached out to the Agency when their preliminary research into the necklace’s history and properties revealed an object that proved more than they were willing to manage.

Dr. Falcon was the one who found the curse, even though he didn’t know that’s what it was.  The curse seemed less to do with magic and more with some native property of the stone.  The unidentifiable stone that looked somewhat like tiger’s eye but was not tiger’s eye.  Using the right detector, one could see a tracing of dark gray through the stone, almost like tiny cracks.  That was the curse.

But Dr. Falcon called it a quantum poison.  The stone seemed able to change materials at the quantum level, working up from there to disrupt sub-atomic particles, then atomic particles, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, organ systems…until finally the entire organism collapsed.  It didn’t seem to have any effect on inanimate, non-living matter.  But Dr. Falcon’s team had the necklace suspended in some kind of anti-gravity field just to play it safe.

“We have to tell Mrs. Smith right away,” Dietrich asked.  “She wouldn’t want to believe us.  But we have to get her in here for tests.”

“Is there anything we can do if she’s already been exposed?” the Director asked.

“Maybe,” Dr. Falcon said.  “The necklace’s history speaks of a cage to contain the curse.  It was actually more like a mesh covering the entire stone.  Placed there in the…”  He looked at Dietrich.

“Seventh century or thereabouts,” Dietrich said.  “All accounts being equal, the story is that someone grew the stone and embedded that curse in it.  This was either very advanced science, which we have since lost, or magic which we now have a scientific explanation for.  The how and why is still a mystery.  But there was a definite target.  She lived about three thousand years ago in the cradle of civilization.  She would have received the necklace as a gift and suffered the consequences of wearing it thereafter.  Those records are vague.  It became part of her family’s fortune.  But it was not long before the family was clued in to the cursed nature of the necklace.

“They were smarter than a lot of the owners who would come after them.  They didn’t try to destroy the necklace.  They tried to remove the curse by finding the one who placed it and attempting to make amends.  But it was too late.  They could never find the stone’s maker.  All they could do was lock it away in a box marked with signs of danger and pass it on through the generations of their family, along with a note of explanation.  There were those who believed that the curse should be buried, not fearfully passed on.  So it finally was.  That family line continues on to the present, but they lost possession of the necklace during raids and plunders of their tombs.  The necklace went on to destroy many others.  And in the middle ages, a society of mages attempted to destroy the necklace and the curse.”  That society of mages was the forebear of the Agency.  But such history was still secret and Dietrich had to be coy in front of the good doctor.

“It didn’t end well with them,” Dietrich continued.  “Of the nine who attempted to destroy the necklace, only two survived.  And both were crippled for life.  That was when the society began to research containment.”

Dr. Falcon shook his head.  “They didn’t understand the physics fully, and yet they were able to find a material that could block the effects of the stone.”  He brought up a photograph of the necklace as it had looked before the removal of the curse-containing mesh.  “It’s a metal.  And the stories that Archaeology found on it suggest some kind of alloy.”

The stone was honed and polished and shaped into a donut.  The ornate metal accents were gold.  The chain was gold.  A meshwork of dark metal twisted and wrapped around the stone, which ruined the aesthetics of the necklace.  That was likely why the current owner had had it removed.  But when the archaeology department called her and asked her, she said she had made no changes to the necklace.  Her husband was the one who had actually bought it at auction.  Dietrich had called the auction house already.  They insisted that they had sold the necklace as it had come to them, and that included the dark wire mesh around the stone.

“Demon’s eyelid,” Dietrich said.  “That’s what the mesh was called by those who made it.  The stone being the demon’s eye.  Some believed the curse was affected when the necklace was worn, catching the attention of the demon whose eye it was.”

“Did the makers of this demon’s eyelid leave any instructions, a recipe?”

Dietrich and Dr. Falcon shook their heads.

“That’s why we need to find out who removed the eyelid and what they did with it,” Dietrich said.  “So Doctor Falcon and his team can replace it, or replicate it.”

“You said the husband bought it at auction?”

“Yes,” Dietrich said.  “I asked about the necklace’s provenance, but the auction house didn’t seem to have much past the last two hundred years, which was pretty boring.  It was part of some noble English family’s heirlooms.  They put a number of jewels up for auction as a charitable contribution.  We’re trying to find documentation dating further.  The donor family’s background checks are clear.”

“Any relationship between the donor family and the Smiths?”

“None that we can find.  What are you thinking, boss?”

The Director folded her hands before her.  “Just making sure you’re covering all the bases.”  She peered at the pictures of the demon’s eye necklace with and without the mesh cage.  “It was probably the husband who had the mesh removed.  He wouldn’t have wanted to present his wife with such an eyesore of a gift.”

“I’m wondering what made him bid on it in the first place,” Dietrich said.

“Let’s ask him.  Bring them in.  Question them separately, while we run some tests.  We’ll tell them we suspect there are some contaminants in the necklace, and that we’d like to rule out their exposure just in case.  That should give the proper sense of urgency minus panic.  And you know the script if they start asking questions.”

***

Mr. and Mrs. Smith were all too happy to comply with the request to come down to the Academy laboratory and get screened for exposure to vague contaminants.  They made the expected nervous jokes about suing the auction house.  They rolled up their sleeves and opened their mouths and allowed themselves to be reasonably poked and prodded.

Mr. Smith admitted to having the mesh removed to reveal the gemstone underneath.  Dietrich introduced himself as an associate of the Academy’s but he could tell that Mr. Smith suspected otherwise.  He asked if Dietrich was a police officer or a federal agent.  He asked about the necklace, about the tests they were undergoing.  Dietrich did one of the least favorite parts of his job and spoke in vague terms with reassuring smiles meant to simulate sincerity.

Mr. Smith was obviously not satisfied with the answers to his questions.  He first joked about and then outright threatened to appeal to higher authorities to get some answers and get back the necklace.  Mrs. Smith tried to calm him, but he stormed out of the laboratory.  She was ready to comply with the investigation, especially since she had indeed worn the necklace on one occasion before bringing it to the Academy.  Safety was more important to her than property.  She believed her husband was angry and hurt because of the implication that he bought something that almost put his wife in danger.  She hadn’t told him she that she wanted a second opinion on the necklace’s origin.  She was no expert.  The necklace just looked to her like it belonged on display in a museum rather than on her throat.  She was completely enamored of it and wanted to assure that her precious gift did not have a sordid past.

Before he left, Mr. Smith did give Dietrich one important piece of information to go on.  He provided the name of the jeweler to whom he went to have the mesh removed.

***

The next day, Dietrich was back into the Director’s office, delivering the rapidly incoming updates.  “Remember the English family who supposedly donated the necklace?  We’d only done background checks on them the last time we spoke.  This time, we actually contacted them and asked about the necklace.”

Dietrich’s boss frowned.  “They’ve never heard of it, have they?”

“No.”

“The papers and documentation?  Faked?”

Dietrich nodded.  “I’ve got a lot of Agency and Academy resources working on various angles of this case.  Every time we have a new piece of evidence or information, this whole story looks more and more suspicious.  The jeweler who removed the mesh?  He is on vacation for a while.  The Agency can’t seem to reach him.  The person at the auction house who signed for the acquisition of the necklace can’t remember any of the documents I presented to her.  She’s panicking badly, but I don’t think she did anything wrong.  It seems as if her signature may have been forged.”

“If it wasn’t for the curse, this would sound like your run-of-the-mill white collar crime.  Not that I would know actually.”

The Director’s phone rang.  She put it on speaker.  It was Dr. Falcon calling from his laboratory at the Academy.  They had run a gamut of tests on the blood, tissue, and energy samples the Smiths had volunteered.

Mrs. Smith had some slight irregularities in some of her test results that indicated she may have gotten a dangerous dose of the cursed necklace the one night she wore it before bringing it in.  Dr. Falcon suggested bringing her back into the laboratory for observation.   He asked for an update on finding the mesh.  He suggested that if they could make a mesh large enough for Mrs. Smith, it might contain the curse within her as the smaller mesh had done with the stone.  Once contained, his team could work on stabilizing the effects, and with any luck, reversing them.

The Director told Dr. Falcon she would contact Mrs. Smith right away and let him know if they heard anything about the mesh.

“You have a narrative yet?” she asked.

“I have a hunch.”  Dietrich’s hunches varied.  Some were logical conclusions based on imperceptible evidence.  And some were plain old gut feelings.  His current hunch was more the former.

“Let’s hear it.”

“Someone was trying to get that necklace to Mrs. Smith, trying very hard.  Faked signatures, forged documents, mysterious origin that only an institution like ours would be able to trace.  I need to speak to Mr. Smith.  His being so upset makes me think something else is going on with him.  Maybe someone coerced him into getting the necklace.”

“Blackmail?”

“We haven’t uncovered any affairs or dirty dealings on either of the Smiths.  Nothing more serious than some youthful indiscretions during the college years.  None of which led to any permanent damage in either of their lives.  But I’ve got to talk to him again.  I called and stopped by their place yesterday, but he’s in some boot camp closed-doors business meeting somewhere away from his office, according to Mrs. Smith.”

The Director raised a brow.  “Didn’t you tell them not to leave town?”

“He’s still in town.  Somewhere.”

“Well, now you’ve got another excuse to stop by.”

Dietrich sighed.  Delivering tragic news was another of his least favorite parts of the job.

***

“Should you be standing that close to me?”  It was the first words Mrs. Smith spoke in over a minute after Dietrich told her the news of her test results.

She had answered the door wearing a throw over her shoulders.  Her nose looked raw and her eyes looked tired.  She said she was feeling under the weather and that she’d just taken some cold medicine.  But the drowse left her eyes as Dietrich spoke.

“Our expert tells me I’m in no danger from you, only from the necklace.  And it can’t do any more harm to you.  We don’t know how bad it is.  That’s actually some good news.  This is something new.  I’ve certainly never encountered it before.  But our people have dealt with a lot of things they’ve never encountered before, and they’ve helped plenty of people.”

Her eyes were welling up.  She blinked and exhaled, composing herself.  “But some they’ve lost…right?”

“Mrs. Smith, if you’ll give me your husband’s contact information, I can make sure someone gets him back here.  He should be here with you.”

“They leave their cell phones and devices at home.”

“Is this meeting out in the woods or something?”

Mrs. Smith shook her head.  “No, but I don’t know where it is.  He said they had emergency contacts outside of the office, so I don’t have to worry if he has an accident or something.  But no one in anyone’s family is supposed to know where they are.  This isn’t the first time.  They do this at least once a year.  To refocus and get their minds thinking outside of the box without any distractions.”

“But what if you have an emergency and need him?  There must be some way to reach him.”

“His office would convey the message to him.”

“He was supposed to be reachable, so we could get him his results and call you both in if we needed to.”  Dietrich felt irritated.  The man had bought his wife a necklace that had cursed her and now when she needed support he was off howling in the woods or drawing idea bubbles on a whiteboard.

Mrs. Smith shrugged.  “He didn’t seem too worried about our health.  He was more bothered by your secrecy.”  She gave Dietrich a sympathetic smile, as if to say she realized the irony.  She reached for her phone.  “I’ll give the office a call and ask them to message him.”

“I should bring you back to the lab, if you’re up for it.”

She seemed to suddenly remember why Dietrich had come in the first place.  “Do they have any clue how to fix me?”

Dietrich nodded.  “But they need more.  I think you might be able to help me.”  He looked over her shoulder to the front room behind her.  And he asked permission to search.

***

While a field team searched the Smiths’ considerably large home, Dietrich brought Mrs. Smith to Agency headquarters.

Mrs. Smith started asking what would happen when the quantum instability progressed.  Would she feel pain?  Would she simply cease to be?  How long was the prognosis?  Dietrich had no answers.  His phone keep alerting him of incoming messages.  He hoped they were all from the various people he’d recruited to help him with the various angles of the case.

“I thought we were going to the Academy,” Mrs. Smith said when they arrived.

“We were, but then it occurred to me that whoever is trying to hurt you might want you there.”

Mrs. Smith took a sharp breath.  “Who’s trying to hurt me?  Why would they want me there?”

Dietrich turned to her as he turned off the ignition.  “Because the necklace is there.”

“But it’s all locked up isn’t it?”

Dietrich reassured her that the necklace was secured, but before they could make it to the elevators, his boss rushed out of the doors and met them in the lobby.

“Missus Smith, I’m glad to see you’re safe.  We need to get ourselves to the Academy now.”  She rushed past them.

Dietrich rushed to follow, glancing beside himself to assure Mrs. Smith was still with them.  “What’s happened?” It must have been a serious emergency to warrant the Director’s immediate and personal attention.

The Director waited until they were in her sedan with doors locked and whatever security system she had in there activated.  “The necklace is missing.  And so is Doctor Falcon.”

***

“Missus Smith, have you heard from your husband?”

“Not yet.”  She was in the back seat.  She coughed, then leaned forward and glanced between Dietrich and the Director.  “Should I be worried?”

Dietrich read through the coded communications he’d received again.  “I don’t think so.”

“Both Mister Smith and Doctor Falcon have disappeared,” the Director said, “along with the necklace.  That doesn’t sound like foul play to you?”

“It does.  But I don’t think the foul play was directed toward them.  I think it was directed toward Mrs. Smith.”

“What?  Why me?”  She inhaled and her breath sounded wheezy.  Dietrich glanced back to look at her as he explained.  She had a hand to her chest and winced when she breathed.  He would have preferred taking her to a hospital, or at least getting her an inhaler.  But she was the center of the conspiracy.  She deserved to know everything and see everything.  And she might be able to help them stop the ones who were trying to hurt her.  There wasn’t much a normal hospital could have done for her anyway, save for trying to make her comfortable.

“One of the first things I did when we learned about your necklace and its curse was to initiate a lineage trace on both you and your husband.”

“You could have just asked.  I know my family all the way back to the Renaissance.”

“We know if further,” Dietrich said.  “We know it all the way back to the beginning of this curse.”  He turned to face her.  “We believe you’re descended from the woman in the stories who was the first target of the necklace.”

“What stories?”

***

By the time they arrived at the Academy, Dietrich had repeated his briefing on the necklace’s history for Mrs. Smith.  She was incredulous that she had anything in common with a woman who lived so unfathomably long ago, and was likely as different from her as night was from day.  She looked incredibly pale, but was as yet still strong enough to shuffle down the corridors with Dietrich and the Director.

Dietrich had heard from another contact as well.  One who specialized in white collar art and antiquities crimes.  He wasn’t sure how to tell Mrs. Smith that he had just confirmed his suspicions that her husband had devised an elaborate plan to kill her.  He started by telling her that he believed her husband had vanished on purpose because he was involved somehow in the schemes surrounding the necklace.

Mr. Smith had done a thorough job, but not a perfect one, of covering his trail.  He was the one who gave the necklace to the auction house.  He had believed that knowing its origin was a reputable house would put his wife’s mind at ease.  He had the protective mesh removed.  The search team still hadn’t found it, but another team had found the jeweler who had removed the mesh.  Dietrich had suspected that the jeweler had fled.  Then he wondered if Mr. Smith had done him in.  The jeweler had been found dead of unknown causes.

Dietrich now suspected it was more likely due to exposure to the necklace than to foul play.  Mr. Smith seemed all too happy to give up the jeweler.  It’s what a truly innocent man would have done.  The jeweler knew only what Mr. Smith had already admitted to, that he’d had the mesh removed.  And there was no evidence that Mr. Smith knew what removing that mesh would unleash.  He likely envisioned that his wife would wear the necklace.  That she would die from the curse.  Maybe he even envisioned the Agency investigating and concluding that the necklace was the cause.  By then he wouldn’t need it anymore.  He orchestrated his wife’s exposure to the necklace.  And he was only thwarted when, despite all his efforts to convince her the necklace’s origin was honest and boring, Mrs. Smith brought it to people who would and could look into it.

The lineage and background for Mr. Smith was still forthcoming.  But Dietrich half-expected to find out that his ancestor was the same man who’d made the curse in the first place.

And now Dr. Falcon was involved somehow.

***

Mrs. Smith remained quiet as they were directed to the quantum physics department and the floor where Dr. Falcon’s laboratory was located.  He had high clearance at the Academy, but not at the Agency.  Maybe that’s why no one was watching as closely.  But the necklace had been tagged a high priority object.  It didn’t make sense.  Unless there were still conspirators within the Agency.  That must have been the real reason the Director herself had come.  The Agency had to continue functioning, even in light of a breach of trust.  The Agency’s internal inquiries division had likely already been deployed to root out the source of the breach.  Dr. Falcon was already locked out of both the Agency and the Academy, physically, digitally, and every other which way.  But it seemed he had already done all the damage he wanted to do.

The lab was in shambles.  Dr. Falcon’s team wouldn’t let anyone go in because of dangers from damaged instruments and radiation hazards that were still being cleaned up.  They didn’t have to suspect Dr. Falcon.  The security cameras showed him doing it.  And they showed him taking the necklace.  He had full access to it.  The team of three scientists all tried to speak as one, until the Director quieted them.  And then they began to tell the story, each taking over from the other, like the chorus in a play.

“He’s trying to keep us occupied so we won’t review the data.”

“He probably destroyed the data.  And the back-ups.”

“What data?  It was all a sham.  We knew it.  I mean deep down.  We should have said something.”

“We did say something.”

“But only to him.  We should have said something to the Academy council.  Or even to you feds.”

The three scientists were wearing badges of different colors, but no names.

Dietrich frowned at the young woman with the red badge who’d denounced the data.  “Why do you say the data is a sham?”

“We understood why he wanted to do the tests himself,” she said.  “He does that on the high priority cases.  But it’s standard procedure for us to have a second person run the same tests and assays for every case, provided we have enough sample.  And sometimes even a third person.  Then someone else altogether reviews the data.  It’s all part of our accountability and validation policy.  But he told us there wasn’t time and that he would take responsibility for whatever conclusions he presented.  He wouldn’t let us come near the necklace.”

“We thought he was just trying to protect us,” the man with the gray badge said.  “We trusted him.”

“Even when the stuff he was saying sounded…strange,” the black-badged woman said.  “Quantum poison?  Really?”

Red Badge shook her head.  Gray Badge looked down as if shamed.  Black Badge clenched her fist.

Dietrich and the Director exchanged a glance.  It had seemed a feasible enough concept to them.

“So…that’s why we broke into his data server,” Red Badge said.

The Director raised a brow.  “So you have reviewed his data?  What did you find out?”

“There was no data,” Dietrich guessed.

“Actually, there was,” Black Badge corrected.  “He really was running every test he could.  He just lied about the data he was getting.”

Gray Badge nodded.  “We didn’t see anything unusual in the data.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t anything there to see.”

Red Badge frowned in thought.  “Maybe if we had a particle accelerator.  A bigger one, I mean.”

Mrs. Smith interjected.  “What does that mean for me?  I was exposed.  Am I…will I be okay?”

She looked around the room, but no one could answer.  There was something about that necklace.  That was certain.  The jeweler who was found dead had died from unknown causes.  No lesions, no puncture wounds, no poisons or venoms (unless it was something new, the Agency had ways to detect even the conventionally undetectable poisons).  No abnormalities in his organs.  If the curse had killed him, the curse of the demon’s eye, then the case had turned back from science to the supernatural.  But Dietrich’s division had found nothing unusual about the necklace, just as the physicists standing before him had found nothing with their methods.

“You didn’t find anything in the data?”  Dietrich asked.  “Anything at all?”

The three physicists looked at each other.  “We think we have an inkling of the stone’s origin,” Red Badge said, “but I hesitate to say…”

“Just say it, Doctor.  We’ll take it with a grain of salt.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Let me guess,” Dietrich said.  “It’s extraterrestrial.”  Unbeknownst to most of the people in the room, Dietrich actually knew an extraterrestrial being.  And ever since meeting him, Dietrich had begun to wonder how many of the magical, mystical objects he encountered in his job were of his earth and how many were of some other earth.

But the physicist shook her head.  “Not extraterrestrial,” she said.  “Subterrestrial.”

***

Something in the word “subterrestrial” triggered a connection in Dietrich’s mind.  They had been investigating the story, the history, the lore of the necklace.  But it was the stone, the so-called devil’s eye, that was the source of power, the carrier of the curse.  All along they had focused on the mesh of wiry metal that contained the stone, but it was curious how often the word “cage” was used to describe the mesh.

“I remember a story,” Dietrich said.  “A creation myth.  Everything that is has its opposite.  That was how creation had to work.  Most of the opposites were equally good.  Night and day.  Hot and cold.  Man and woman.  Light and shadow.   And there was a gradient between all the opposites.  There was only one set of opposites that was absolute.  Good and evil.  For good to exist, evil had to exist as well.  But those who made the world found a way to contain the evil.  They squeezed it all into one small chunk.  They made a cage for it.  A cage so vast that it contained all the evil in the world, because the cage was the world.”

“The planet,” Black Badge said, her eyes widening as she too made the connection.  “Earth.  The entire planet was the cage that contained the curse.”

“The ultimate curse.  The curse of evil.”  Dietrich exchanged a look with the Director.  Some while ago, the Agency had been warned of a coming doom, a calamitous event.  He wondered if this could be it.  But the event they were warned of was to come from above not below.  Maybe this was just another case.  A very big case.  Their cases spanned different dimensions.  And many took them to the deepest parts of the planet.  But this myth went far below the planet’s crust.  It spoke of the center of the world.  The ever-burning center of Earth.

“I don’t feel evil,” Mrs. Smith said.  Her voice was quiet but steady.

“This isn’t possession or temptation,” the Director said.  “It’s more like contagion.”

“If what we’re trying to contain is evil,” Dietrich said, looking at Mrs. Smith with some confidence at last, “then the supernatural division can help.  Salt, iron—“

“The earth’s core is made of iron!”

“And the field team is still searching for that mesh,” Dietrich said.  “I’m beginning to doubt it works.  But we might as well try if we find it.”

The Director pulled out her phone and pressed a few buttons.  “You’re authorized to use what resources you need from our division to help Mrs. Smith.  I’ll see to tracking down our fugitives and the necklace.  If it’s made of pure evil, we have ways of tracking that.”

“If you find it, we can hold it,” Red Badge said.  “The anti-gravity field seemed to work.”

“Until we can find a way to drop it back into the center of the earth,” Black Badge added.

The Director nodded.  “I’ll take that into consideration.”  She raised her phone to her ear and walked out of the laboratory.

“But there’s been evil in the world for as long as we know.  How could that be if it’s supposed to be contained in that little stone?” Red Badge asked.  “And how did it surface—this is assuming your myth has some truth to it?”

Dietrich shook his head.  “I don’t know.  Maybe the stone in the necklace is only a piece of a larger chunk.  Maybe the evil has been leaking out this whole time.  Maybe it can’t be contained.”  He looked at Mrs. Smith.  “Maybe it can only be defeated, broken.”

“A permanent victory against all evil?  Sure, why not?”

Dietrich put a hand on Mrs. Smith’s shoulder and looked her in the eyes.  “Today, we’re just aiming for a permanent victory against one curse.”

 

Copyright © 2015 by Nila L. Patel.

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