The Coventry Box
Philip Turner
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Arthur Franks was what you might call a part-time professional where crime was concerned. He was a joiner by trade, a skilled craftsman in wood, who could work as surely by eye as his less gifted colleagues could stumble along with the aid of measures and straight edges.
   For beer money, he repaired antique furniture. A terribly respectable old chap, who was known as Sir Alf in the trade, paid cash for good work and silence. The more a damaged antique became the work of Artie Franks, the greater his silence bonus - which covered his own activities and those of Sir Alf's nephew, Tommy, who stained and varnished repairs to give the restored article 'visual continuity'.
   Yet an above average income, sweetened by his untaxed bonuses, failed to keep Artie Franks solvent. Money seemed to evaporate from his pockets. And so he resorted to the occasional spot of gentle burglary to make ends meet.
   He had had his eye on one particular house for some time. It was rather close to home, scarcely a quarter of a mile from the modest semi which he had inherited when his father had died. But the house lay on his usual route when he took an after-dark stroll for fresh air, or a Sunday afternoon ramble to shake his dinner down. He was thirty-eight years old, unmarried, something of a loner at times, and he took his walks partly as a concession to the need for exercise and partly to size up prospective targets.
   The house was detached, one of a row on the eastern side of a fairly steep hill. Each long front garden was a pair of untidy terraces linked by concrete steps. Elder Road looked as though it had been designed to test postmen to destruction.
   Frequent observations had told Artie that 'The Meadows' was not a family home. When he looked beyond the white gate set in an undisciplined beech hedge, he never saw the toys - footballs, bicycles, and the like - which decorated the gardens of neighbours. Loud, teenage music never forced its way from behind the grime-mellowed, red brick walls. The pattern of lights after dark or on dull afternoons always suggested occupation by one person. The place looked as though it would reward handsomely a visit in the early hours of a dark morning. But it was uncomfortably close to home.

It was a Wednesday night in the middle of a cold April. Clouds that threatened, but had not yet delivered rain, deprived Artie of a view of the Moon and Venus in the east, and Jupiter and Mars to the south. He was feeling the pinch again. A catalogue of his troubles ran through his mind as he set out on a nocturnal stroll. His car needed two new tyres. The reminder for his television licence had arrived that morning. An instalment of rates was due. And Sir Alf was on a working holiday in France, which meant that there would be no tax-free foreigners to help him out.
   Breaking and entering was the last thing on his mind as he turned onto Elder Road near the top of the hill. But he couldn't help noticing that The Meadows was in darkness as he trailed past the white gate with its cast iron letters and the number '38' in black.
   He found his feet taking him to the left half-way down the hill, and left again at the next junction.
   Shall I or shan't I? he thought as he completed another side of the square, which would bring him back to Elder Road.
   Two cars hurried up the hill at reckless speed. There was only Artie Franks out of doors to see them. A latch clicked gently. The white gate swung inwards on well-greased hinges. Astounded by his own audacity, Artie advanced to the frost-cracked, concrete steps. He was six feet above pavement level when he reached the house and slipped round to the back.
   Every window that overlooked him was curtained or in darkness. A strangely pleasant feeling of detached confidence crept over him - as though he were watching somebody else taking the risk of a completely spur-of-the-moment job.
   The catch slipped free with a minimum of resistance. Artie slid the lower window up cautiously. After checking behind the curtain for plants on the window sill and obstacles against the wall, he clambered into the room. He left the window open, preserving an escape route in case of emergency. The house was still. It felt empty.
   Artie stood for a minute in the heavy darkness, nerving himself to proceed. Then he took a small pen-torch from a pocket and shone the spot of light around the room. It was much bigger than the largest room of his semi. Bookcases lined the wall to his right. Three armchairs faced the television. A door stood ajar in the opposite corner of the room. The candlestick on the telephone table by the door looked like silver. He crossed the room to investigate.
   The owner of the house was prepared for a winter power black-out. Artie removed a healthy stub of candle and set it on the table beside the matchbox. He was examining the candlestick for hallmarks when a voice spoke.
   Artie spun round, his torch beam flying unerringly to one of the armchairs - which had been unoccupied moments earlier. The old man was slumped in a totally relaxed posture, almost as if he was pleased to see an intruder.
   "You really didn't see me," said the man in a slow, heavy voice, which was filled with wonder.
   Artie just gaped at him, frozen to the spot.
   "I can't put up any resistance," continued the man. "I've had a coronary."
   "I'll get you an ambulance," Artie said automatically, shocked from the role of burglar to that of Samaritan.
   The telephone behind the matchbox had keys instead of a dial; as if designed for gloved fingers.
   "Emergency," said a calm, almost casual female voice. "Which service do you require?"
   "Ambulance," said Artie. When the connection had been made, he gave the address. Then he was asked for his name. "I'm a neighbour," he improvised. "You'd better hurry up. The old bloke's had a coronary. He's in a bad way." Then he replaced the receiver.
   "You're probably wondering why you didn't see me," said the man in the chair. "Even though you shone your torch right at me. It works."
   "What works?" asked Artie, intrigued.
   "My disrupter." The man was holding a two-ounce tobacco tin.
   "Think you should be talking?" Artie frowned, fixing the tin with his torch.
   "I have to tell someone," returned the man. "It acts as a repellent. It interferes with brain processes. The ones that decide which part of an overwhelming mass of sensory information is to be acted on. Stored in long and short term memory. And which is to be ignored. It made you ignore me."
   "Oh!" said Artie. Nothing else came to mind.
   Artie moved over to the chair and picked up the tobacco tin when the man pushed it a fraction of an inch along the arm towards him. There was a black, sliding switch in the side of the base, set to a minus sign scratched into the plating. From every other angle, it looked like a normal, two-ounce tobacco tin.
   "What does it do again?" He asked.
   There was no reply. His torch beam met an unwavering stare. Artie Franks realized that he was standing, uninvited, in someone's home; that the someone was dead; and that awkward questions would be asked when the ambulance arrived.
   He clicked the light on as he left the room, and the hall light as he opened the front door, leaving them on as beacons to guide the ambulancemen. The tobacco tin was still in his gloved hand when he reached his home.
   After a stiff drink of British vodka to steady his nerves, Artie investigated his prize. He used a twopence piece to pop the lid from the tin - to find a collection of electronic components, which looked like the guts of a calculator, and a small battery.
   He was able to identify the multi-pronged, black oblongs as the homes of silicon chips. There were three in the top layer of components; perhaps more if he cared to find a screwdriver and investigate deeper. The device looked much too complicated for the likes of Artie Franks.
   He pushed the switch towards the plus sign scored into the metal. Nothing happened. There could have been a faint humming from the box of tricks, but it could equally well have been his imagination. He didn't know what to expect because he hadn't understood the explanation of the device's function. Wondering whether it was worth keeping, he switched it off, replaced the lid and went to bed.

By the following evening, Artie had sort of convinced himself that the tobacco tin's contents had stopped him seeing their creator. If the old bloke had been dying after a heart attack, he had to have been sitting in his chair when Artie had climbed into the room. Yet Artie hadn't noticed him until he had spoken up. It was almost as if the box had made him invisible.
   There was a way to test this theory without making too much of a fool of himself. Artie tucked the tobacco tin into his anorak pocket and headed for the main road. Just before he reached The Rising Sun, he pushed the switch. The pub was less than a quarter full. He reached the bar and called a greeting to the landlord. He was ignored. He tried to catch the eyes of the barmaid. They looked right through him.
   He stood at the bar for ten minutes. He could see himself in the mirrors, so he wasn't invisible. But by a tacit conspiracy, the rest of the world had sent him to Coventry. Life rolled on around him as if he were a streamlined object in a river. Nobody bumped into him. When people looked in his direction, they failed to see him. As far as both customers and bar staff were concerned, Artie Franks was not there. It was a wonderful yet unnerving experience.
   The novelty wore off. He turned towards the door to the street. People in motion avoided him effortlessly, adjusting their pace to pass safely around an invisible obstacle. He switched off the device in the car park and returned to the pub. The landlord spotted him as he pushed through the double doors and began to pull a pint of mild. Artie Franks was a member of the human race again.

He tested the device again at lunchtime the following day. He had slipped out of work to buy some cigarettes at the nearby supermarket, where they gave threepence off. The sounds of cash registers in operation attracted his larcenous attention as he headed for the cigarette booth. Reaching into his anorak pocket, he slid the black switch to 'plus'. Then he stopped in front of a woman with a shopping trolley and stared at her.
   She manoeuvred around him automatically, as if he were one of the stacks of cardboard cartons in the aisle. His faith reaffirmed, he hurried to the check-out counters.
   A till clicked open. Artie hovered indecisively. When it opened again, he reached past the girl's hands as she scooped out change and removed a five pound note.
   Suppose the battery runs out!
   His fist clenched guiltily, crushing the note with a terrifying rustle. The cash drawer closed again and the girl began to click up the next set of purchases.
   Artie raced for the exit. He had to lean against the front window of the supermarket to recover from his panic, sweating, his legs trembling. Life in the street continued without him. He had just pulled off the perfect crime.
   After mopping his face with a crumpled handkerchief, he started to walk back along the street. He remembered to switch the device off before he entered the newsagent's, where he bought a new battery and a packet of cigarettes with his stolen five pound note.

The success of his lunchtime raid set Artie Franks thinking. Any accessible money was his for the taking, and at no risk. He could have emptied the till in the supermarket instead of taking one miserable fiver. He could have emptied every till in the place and just strolled away from the inevitable confusion, and he should have left the device switched on and just helped himself to a packet of cigarettes and a battery in the newsagent's.
   He was rich. All he had to do was actually assemble his fortune. Yet the very certainty of his wealth turned its gathering into an unwelcome chore. He was like a prospector who, having achieved his life's ambition and stumbled across a field of gold nuggets, was too idle to pick them up.

On his way home, he had to pass his bank. He noticed that the door of the concrete and glass building was closed, but that the lights were on. Artie Franks felt himself come alive suddenly This was where the money was kept. His money. The route to his wildest dreams lay beyond the bank's green door - which began to open as he looked at it.
   Automatically his hand reached into his anorak pocket and pushed the black switch on the tobacco tin. Without stopping to think, he raced for the door, swept along by an excitement which swamped his earlier, jaded views on money grubbing.
   Two of the cashiers were leaving. Artie slipped past them before the large blonde pulled the door shut. He was in!
   The familiar counter and its partition wall faced him. There was a door at the right hand end. It opened when he turned the handle. He could see the manager sitting on one of the desks in the office area, discussing something with the tall bloke with the slight squint. Artie strolled past them with all the confidence of someone who knows that he has a brand new battery in his tobacco tin.
   He knew where the strongroom was. Customers had had a view of it until five years earlier, when the layout of the bank had been remodelled. The door was massive and painted pale green. He stepped into a space the size of his bathroom at home and paused to gloat.
   Disbelief and disappointment rocked him. There was no money! He was surrounded by files. His eyes darted around the strongroom frantically.
   There it was.
   He felt weak with relief as he penetrated deeper and saw the neat bundles of notes. They were stacked on shelves along the back wall.
   Artie stared at his money, counting with his eyes, telling himself that he should have brought a carrier bag, yet confident that he would manage somehow to cram everything into his pockets.
   The crisp bundles of coloured paper drew his eyes and glued him to the spot, like a magnificent work of art or a pornographic film.
   An ear-popping increase in pressure, darkness and a dull clang broke his trance. They had shut him in!
   Artie leapt for the door and began to pound on the smooth expense of metal with both fists, shouting at the top of his voice.
   His hands were pulpy masses, smearing the door with unseen stickiness in the clinging darkness, and his voice had become a hoarse croak before he remembered the device in the tobacco tin. By then, it was too late. He was alone in the bank.
   The vault was unventilated, but it contained enough air to support an average but inactive human comfortably for at least twenty-four hours. Artie Franks had lost all sense of time in the smothering blackness of the strongroom.
   As he slumped, exhausted, against the steel door, he attributed his breathing difficulties to stale air, not terror induced by confinement. In that awful isolation, his mind decided that he could not survive until morning and gave up the struggle. For him, the long, black night would never end. ■

An edited version of this story was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 16:45 hours on Thursday, June 05th, 1980.

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Created for Romiley Literary Circle by HTSP Web Division, 10 SK6 4EG, Romiley, G.B.
The original story Philip Turner, 1980. This version Philip Turner, 2002