In a quaint antiquarian bookshop in the Midlands of England, a woman is captivated by a rare gilt-edged devotional nestled within an exquisite and equally tempting box. Her desire to pilfer it overcomes her scruples, and her guilt and terror at doing something so audacious, so unlike her. With a simple sleight of hand, it’s hers.
But this irresistible book of hours isn’t in her possession for long. By chance, desire, and cruel twists of fate, it soon falls into the covetous grip of others—from a pickpocket to a schoolboy to a priest—as one woman’s transgression sets in motion a dreadful chain of events.
This diabolically clever story from the New York Times–bestselling author proves Stephen King was right when he said, “You’re going to love Todd.”
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Somewhere in the Midlands of England, Winter 1915
She didn't know what had come over her.
She had never done anything like that before — had never even been tempted. But it was so beautiful. And the clerk was looking the other way, too busy ogling the pretty girl in a very unbecoming walking dress for late November who was just passing the shop window.
And so she simply covered it with her gloved hand, gently closed her fingers over the box, and then nonchalantly said, "Good day," with a smile, and walked out of the door.
Nothing happened. No alarm was raised, no one shouted for her to stop.
She walked on casually, as if nothing had happened — as if she had nothing to hide. But her heart was pounding in her chest, and she was hard pressed not to breathe so rapidly that she passed out. The thought of a constable — an ambulance crew — anyone — discovering what was now resting in her pocket frightened her to death.
Almost to death, she amended quickly.
What she ought to do, right now, was turn around and march straight back to the bookshop and put the little box back where she'd found it. Before the clerk even noticed it was missing.
But that was even more terrifying to contemplate. He might already have noticed. He might have already sent someone for Constable Welkin.
She swallowed hard. She'd taken the little box because it was so extraordinary, and she'd never had anything quite like it. Ever. And she'd wanted it more than anything.
She walked on, looking for a way out.
Just ahead was the greengrocer's door.
She hurried inside, off the High, out of sight, and realized that she was almost running. Slowing, she managed a smile and walked down to a display of late cabbages. She bought two, although she hated them.
The bookstore had just received a shipment on consignment — she knew that much from the newspapers. It was from a house that was for sale somewhere in East Anglia, and Otto's Bookshop had been asked to catalog the library before it was put up for auction.
She'd never been interested in old books, and only went to the bookshop from time to time for the latest novels. But she did like pretty things, and when she'd casually picked up a small, beautifully decorated case, opened it, and leafed through the book inside with all that gold leaf and the tiny, exquisitely painted scenes on each page, she had been astonished and then covetous. She had no idea how much it might be worth — far more than she could afford, surely! — and she was afraid to ask. That was when the desire to have it overcame her scruples and her terror at something so — so audacious and unlike her.
Leaving the greengrocer's, she stopped in at Lydia's for a gypsy tart and a cup of tea. That settled her nerves a little, but she was still anxious, and wanted only to go home now, shut the door, and be safe. Again she contemplated returning the little book, but that was impossible without explaining how she'd come by it. Surely with all the books that had come in, no one would miss it? Not if they didn't even know it had ever been there? The clerk had been unpacking a box, stacking books every which way before carrying them back to the inner room that served as an office, to be examined. By the shop's rear door were a dozen more large boxes — twice that number, for all she could tell, in the shadows there.
She couldn't bear to think about it any longer, or her nerves would fail her completely. Surely if they knew what she'd done, Constable Welkin would be here by now? Surely she didn't have to wait any longer? She nearly choked on her tea as she drank down the rest of it, and forgetting cabbages in the sack at her feet, she paid for her tea and started for the shop door.
When Lydia called to her, she thought her heart would stop from sheer fright. Turning slowly, she stared at the woman by the counter.
"Your marketing, Madame?"
She followed the line of the pointing finger and saw the sack by her chair.
"Oh — oh, my goodness — yes. Whatever was I thinking?" She rushed back to her table and caught up the sack, then forced herself to smile again and walk steadily to the door. She could feel the disapproving gazes of the other customers and flushed with embarrassment.
The first thing she did after shutting and latching her door behind her was to hurry upstairs, take off her hat and gloves, then her coat, leave them on the bed and walk away from all of them as if they were somehow contaminated. Even the cabbages.
It wasn't until after her lonely dinner, taken in the small dining room, that she went upstairs again and reached for her coat. She felt a flush of guilty anticipation as she slipped her hand down the soft wool, her fingers stealing into the left hand pocket with almost sensuous pleasure.
It was empty.
She shoved her hand deep inside, then turned the lining inside out. But there was nothing except for a wadded handkerchief in the very bottom.
She stood there, so shocked she could hardly breathe.
What had become of the little book?
It couldn't have fallen out. That was impossible. And she'd kept her coat on in the greengrocer's and while drinking her tea. She couldn't possibly have lost it!
Had she imagined taking it, because she'd wanted it so badly? And actually believed it? She pushed that thought away as too frightening, and searched her coat again.
She searched the other pocket, just to be sure, but there was nothing in it but her house key.
Collapsing in a chair, she stared at the coat lying in a heap across the bed. And after several minutes, she began to cry.
She couldn't have said later whether it was grief at losing something so precious or relief ...
He had managed to lift the contents of the old lady's pocket without her even noticing that he'd bumped into her. She'd been lost in a world of her own, he thought, and hardly aware of her surroundings. That's why the elderly were such easy marks, they walked down the High as if they were alone on the street.
It wasn't until he was well away that he took what he'd lifted out of his own pocket and looked at it. Then swore.
What the hell was this? A beautiful little box — and inside a beautiful little book? And where in God's name could he find anyone to buy that? It must be worth a thousand quid, but more to the point, it was easily recognizable, and if the old lady called the police, everyone would know exactly what this thing looked like. It might as well have her name on it! Right there on the cover, for all to see. Worthless piece of —
He broke off. God damn it, there was Ricky, walking toward him. Praying he hadn't been seen, he dodged into the ironmonger's shop and frantically looked for a rear door. He owed Ricky, and it was overdue, what he owed. And this wasn't the time to be seen.
But the rear door was locked. Didn't the stupid clerks in this shop know that was a fire hazard? He wanted to kick it, but that would bring him attention he didn't need right now, and he looked for a display he could hide behind, in case Ricky came in.
The bell over the front door tinkled as it opened and someone walked into the shop. Sweating badly, he waited. But there was a woman speaking to a clerk, asking about door latches. He waited until she had gone, then decided it was safe to leave too.
Just as he stepped out from behind the display, the clerk took a handful of old boxes over to the rear door and unlatched it to take them to the dust bin. He hurried after the clerk and stepped out into the rear alley. When the clerk turned to stare at him, he grinned sheepishly.
"That was my girl, just came in. And this isn't the time to face her," he said rapidly. "Not when she's that mad at me." And he trotted off, ignoring the clerk's glare.
As if I'd shoplift, he said to himself as he came to the end of the alley. What's to steal in a bloody iron monger's? I ask you.
He'd just reached the end of the alley, when Ricky stepped out from behind a dust bin, and grinned at him. It wasn't a nice grin, and he shivered.
"Where's what you owe?" Ricky said pleasantly. "You're behind, you know that?"
As if he could forget!
"I don't have it yet. Market day was raining, and pickings were slim. I do have this, though. It ought to be worth more than what I owe."
He took out the little box and handed it over to Ricky. One of his men had come up behind their leader, and his face wasn't friendly.
Ricky put out a hand for the offering, and looked it over.
"You must be mad," he said, still pleasant. Which his way of scaring a grown man into doing anything to get away. "I don't want it, I can't sell it, and there's no value to me in having it." He tossed it aside, then said to the man behind him, "Don't kill him. He still owes me."
And then Ricky was gone, and it was too late to run. But he tried, although it didn't serve. He was left bleeding and battered behind Lydia's tea shop. An hour later, he managed to crawl away. It wasn't until much later that he gave a thought to the damned book in a box.
By then he was in hospital dying of a ruptured spleen. He cursed the book with his last breath.
Ricky was condemned to death at the next Assizes.
He wasn't pleasant to the hangman.
Tommy Hood had skipped school the day the beating took place. He hadn't done the reading he'd been assigned on Friday last, and he didn't feel like another lecture from Miss Henley. She was good at lectures. And he hated school anyway.
And there was Constable Welkin! Just coming out of the tobacconist's.
Swearing with words he'd heard his Pa use when the hammer hit his thumb, he dodged into the alley, and hid behind the dustbin.
It was while he was squatting there, sweating bullets, hoping to God Constable hadn't seen him, that he noticed the little box just at the edge of the dustbin.
It was a little larger than a packet of cigs, and really elegant. Intrigued, he was about to reach for it when he heard Constable's boots walking past the alley's mouth.
Sick to his stomach with sudden fear, he pressed himself back against the worn brick of the wall, making himself as small as he could. His Pa would have something to say if Constable brought him home!
But the boots passed on. He waited, in case it was a trick, then scrabbled for the box, opening it and taking out the little book inside.
Gorblimey! It was his first reaction. The second was, who'd lost this? And was there a reward for finding it? But there was no name inside. All right, then, he'd have to look in the newspaper, to see if there was an advert.
Carefully putting the book and the box in his pocket, he crept out of the alley and went on his way.
He'd almost forgot the box was there until he showed up at school the next morning and Miss Henley, the ugly witch herself, caught him as he came through the door.
"And where were you yesterday?" she demanded. "And where's your reading report?"
He'd been watching his dad shoeing the mare last night. It had slipped his mind that he had to read.
"Speak up," she said harshly. "Or I'll have your father in here to answer for you."
That made his mind kick in, and he remembered the box. "Please, Miss Henley, I was on my way to school when I found this on the High. I was looking for the owner, but so far I've had no luck." He handed her his treasure.
Startled, she looked at it. "Found it?"
"Yes, please, I saw it at the edge of a dustbin by the ironmonger's, but they don't know anything about it. I looked for Constable Welkin, to show it to him, but I never found him. I looked in the newspaper, but no one appears to have lost it. So I brought it to school today to ask you what's best to do about it."
She opened the box, then the book. Suspicion replaced surprise. "This is a very expensive prayer book. Are you sure you didn't pinch it yourself?"
"Please, no, Miss Henley, what would I be doing with another book?"
There was the ring of truth in his voice, and she heard it.
"Well, then, I shall keep it until you find the owner. Now go sit down at your desk, or I'll mark you as absent again."
He scurried off, grateful to get by with no more than a threat.
Miss Henley stood there staring at the exquisite little book in her hands. She'd been teaching in this benighted school for seven years. Her pay didn't begin to cover the aggravation she suffered from the likes of Tommy Hood day in and day out. She hated her work and she saw no way out of it.
Today she tasted of joy for the first time. Something like this must be worth a fortune. She was tempted to take it to Otto's Bookshop to ask just how much it was worth, then shook her head. Too close to home ...
She had planned to go to London over Christmas, a treat she'd saved and scrimped for all term. She would take the little book to someone there and see what she could get for it. That's to say, if the owner didn't come forward. But Tommy — being Tommy — could have come by this treasure anywhere, and if no one claimed it before Christmas, she would keep it and sell it herself.
Pleased with her plan, she tucked the box in her pocket, turned on her heel, smiled at the student she'd nearly collided with, and went to take attendance.
By Christmas no one had appeared to ask for the little book, and Miss Henley had no doubt that Tommy had forgot all about it. It had saved him a scolding by the Head, and worse from his father, and therefore had served its purpose. She had kept an eye on the Lost column in the newspaper, but there was no mention of the book there. Of course she hadn't turned it over to Constable Welkin, and the more time that had passed since the book had come into her possession, the harder it would be to explain why she hadn't spoken to him at once. And he was a Chapel man, he didn't have much to say to women.
On the day before Christmas Eve, she carefully packed the little box in her valise, then changed her mind and put it in her purse. Just in case something happened to the valise. She couldn't bear the thought of losing her best hope of escape after waiting so long for this journey and what it might bring. An hour later, she went to the station and boarded the train for London. Her conscience was reasonably clear, for her need transcended that of anyone who might have lost the little book — after all, if the previous owner could afford something of this quality, he wouldn't miss one small book. He'd lost it, hadn't he? Such carelessness didn't deserve to be rewarded!
As the train moved south, wheels clacking in her ears, for the first time she allowed herself a small dream. Depending on what the little box brought, she might escape the Midlands forever and find a better position nearer London. Surrey perhaps, or Kent. She could put in applications, now that she might be able to afford such a move. The dream was enticing.
She had brought sandwiches in a basket, to avoid costly meals on the way to London, and they had left her drowsy. Tucking her head against the wall by the window, she closed her eyes and drifted into sleep
And so she never heard the grinding of the brakes until it was too late, and the train shuddered with such force as it collided with the farm cart on the line that she was thrown forward, striking her head on the carriage lantern. It was the last thing she knew.
The man who was sitting across from Miss Henley was hurt as well, his back twisted rather badly. As the carriages came to a jolting halt, he struggled upright, pushed aside the body of the young woman who had been sitting across from him and had cannoned into him with the suddenness of the accident.
"Anyone badly hurt?" he asked the compartment at large.
Groans met him. But the woman was silent. He reached out to feel for a pulse. He couldn't find a heartbeat. He put her gently back into her seat by the window and tried to close her eyes. They wouldn't close at all, their blank stare so unnerving that he looked away. The older woman in the compartment was bleeding, and one of the men by the door were unconscious.
He started to give the dead woman last rites, then remembered that he no longer had the right to do that or anything else that might be considered priestly duties. As he turned away, he saw that her purse had spilled onto the floor, and he reached down to retrieve what he could. He knew he ought to be ministering to the living woman who was bleeding, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to do that, any more than he could give last rites. Words of comfort stuck in his throat, and the purse was a distraction.
Excerpted from "The Pretty Little Box"
Copyright © 2017 Charles Todd.
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
It is so frustrating when purchasers are not informed about the length of the "books" for sale. I expected a novel but bought a short story-- a pretty bad one at that.
A Pretty Little Box was, for a reader, ultimately very unfulfilled and frustrating. Less than 30 pages and no real conclusion. I get the moral of the story but it was still very unsatisfying. Not up to the standards I hold for Charles Todd.
I suppose authors like to try for variety occasionally, but this was a disappointment. Barely more than a short story.