The Puzzle (Horror)

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Tom Magnum sat in the dark room drumming his fingers on the scarred wooden tabletop.

Dark was not an adequate description for the room, but it was what had struck him first as he crept down the stairs. The only illumination came from a narrow half window up near the ceiling on one wall of the space. Outside its dust mote filled light, shadows stood deep in the corners.

He curled his fingers against the splintered wood and stared at his adversary through the gloom. Somehow he’d gotten the jump on Magnum, and that didn’t happen often, so Tom knew he must be crafty or skilled. Standing just within the shadows, dark eyes gleaming, he looked like the crafty sort. The pearly wicked smile only furthered the impression.

The smile grew wider as the man spoke. “Mr. Magnum, I believe. So glad you could join me.”

Magnum didn’t smile back. “You know my name, but what is yours?”

The shadow shrugged. “I have many names, but perhaps you’ve heard me called Darkheart.”

Magnum, like most men in his line of work, had heard of him. He was infamous within the kinds of circles Magnum travelled in. They were dangerous circles, and he knew Darkheart was equally dangerous. A villain few could match in terms of brains or brawn.

Magnum swallowed, even he might have trouble dealing with this one.

“I see that you have heard of me. Very good, that will make things easier I think. Now, I have a question for you, Magnum. A favor to ask really.”

“Why should I help you?” Magnum said, voice low.

“All in good time. But first the question.” Darkheart gestured to the top of the table. “Will you be so kind as to solve this puzzle for me?”

The puzzle in question was a black wooden square a foot on each side. Within were fifteen tiles and one empty space of equal size. Symbols like nothing Magnum had ever seen were carved into the tiles. It might have been a strange child’s toy, but Darkheart’s interest in it, meant it was clearly something else.

Tom glanced to the puzzle and back to the shadows. Darkheart was still staring at him.

“My question remains,” he said, “Why should I help you?”

“I saw the way you looked at it, you are curious, but perhaps that is not enough. Perhaps you need further motivation. Very well. Two nights ago a family was kidnapped.”

Tom’s eyes widened then narrowed.

“Yes, that family. The reason you came poking about. If you don’t solve this puzzle, Mr. Magnum, I’m afraid they will die a horrible death. And it will be on your head.”

Tom growled, but looked at the puzzle. He’d already been disarmed, and no backup was coming. He might be able to take Darkheart, but where was this family? From the look in his eyes he didn’t think the madman was bluffing. That only left the puzzle.

He didn’t know where to begin. The design looked simple enough, but the symbols were strange and mysterious. Carefully, he reached out and slid a tile across into the open space. A strange sensation ran up his finger and he jerked his hand back.

Had he imagined it? Or was there something more? He rubbed his finger, he thought perhaps it tingled slightly, but then the tingling faded. In either case he had to go on. He could picture the family from the photograph he’d been shown. He had to save them. No one had saved his father, he swallowed at that, but he’d save this one. He had to, it was his job.

Leaning forward he began sliding pieces, first one way and then another. Darkheart watched from the shadows. Eyes even more intent now. Magnum ignored him as best he could. Slowly as the pieces clicked around within their frame, he thought began to sense a pattern. To see some sort of logic within the symbols. The solution was close, he could feel it.

He reached for the next piece.

“Thomas.”

The word cut through the room, through the tension and the shadows.

At the table Tom Magnum sighed. He knew that voice all too well. He might have another minute, he looked back to the puzzle, still unsolved. He reached for it again.

“Thomas Mulroney! Get up here and help me unpack these boxes.”

Just like that the room stopped, shifted, faded.

Thomas cringed and looked about himself. At the water stained card table before him, the ancient water heater in the corner and the shelves beside it. Reluctantly he pushed back the folding chair and headed for the basement stairs. The curious puzzle he’d found laying on the table would have to wait.

“Coming, mom,” he called as he climbed creaking stairs back to the kitchen.

After the door at the top of the stairs had swung shut, a shadow detached itself from the dark space behind the water heater. It slid over to the table and stared down at the puzzle.

The damn thing. Trapping him, taunting him even now, so close and yet untouchable, by him. That damn wizard thinking he was so clever binding him to a child’s toy.

He looked to the door out of the basement, listened to the voices and racket above. Perhaps this Thomas would be the solution. He’d run out the last family when they’d proven useless, and the ones before in endless succession. But he sensed something different in this boy. There was hurt there, but something else. He’d felt the draw of the creation spilling from the boy’s mind, had gone along with it, played his part.That power made him dangerous. It might make him a powerful opponent one day, but it might also prove the key to his freedom.

He smiled a pearly smile in the dark, picturing that freedom after so many long years, and waited for Tom Magnum to return to crack the case.

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