Melanie approached the unfamiliar door and nervously lifted the key from her pocket. She drew a deep breath, unlocked it, paused, then pushed it open. She was horrified to see a coffin in the room.
Uncle Jack always was a practical joker, she thought to herself. The lawyer, who handled the reading of his will, handed the key to her with a warning “be careful.” Did he know something she didn’t about Uncle Jack?
The area hadn’t seen the light of day for decades. Cobwebs dripped from the ceiling and covered each corner of the room. Heavy drapes hung from the windows. A sliver of sunlight revealed tiny dust particles floating in the stale air.
Eccentric was the word everyone used to describe Uncle Jack. Her mother’s brother was a war hero in World War II and part of the special ops team who took out Hitler. When he returned from Germany, he bought the old Victorian home and rarely ventured out.
Jack never had children of his own. Melanie was his oldest niece and the only one who ever sent him a birthday or a Christmas card. Though she tried to visit him, he always had an excuse for why it wasn’t a good time. His Will was simple and to the point. All his belongings, including the house, were to go to her.
She worked the light switch. It clicked, but nothing happened. The chandelier hanging from the middle of the ceiling appeared expensive. Did it need fresh bulbs? Melanie reached into her back jeans pocket for her phone. The flashlight option was her current best friend as she pointed it at the coffin.
A layer of dust covered the dark wooden structure. The ornate carvings looked creepy. An icy shiver ran down her spine as she approached it cautiously. She didn’t dare open it for fear of what she might find. Her attention spanned the bookcases, which filled every wall from floor to ceiling.
Titles of books in different languages she couldn’t read or understand lined the shelves. Her mother said Jack was fluent in German and Italian. How she wished she could have met him while he was alive.
In the room’s corner was an old mahogany roll-top desk. Two overstuffed brown leather chairs with ottomans sat under heavily draped windows. The oriental rug was red with hints of blues and yellows. An end table had a crystal cut decanter filled halfway with amber-colored liquid and two empty highball glasses.
Uncle Jack’s alcohol of choice was high-quality single-barrel bourbon. Melanie wondered if it was the same bottle she had sent him last Christmas. She walked over to the windows and pulled the drapes open.
Pouring herself a glass, she brought it to her nose. Yep, one thing she knew, expensive bourbon. The first sip awakens the taste buds. No burn, only smoothness as it traveled down her throat. She could see her Uncle Jack now. You got your good senses from me, little lady.
It was as if he was with her. A movement out of the corner of her eye made her gasp. Her head jerked to the left. “Hello? Is someone here?” Silence. Either it’s my imagination or the liquor on an empty stomach.
The overstuffed chairs looked inviting, so she walked over and plopped down on one of them. She threw off her high heels and tucked her feet under her butt. Another sip of alcohol and her eyes were drooping. Her day had been long. I think I’ll take a little catnap.
Thirty minutes passed as Melanie dozed on the comfortable chair. Not sure what woke her, she opened one eye. The room was dark. She heard pipes banging inside a wall. Was it someone knocking on the front door?
Slowly, she arose and rubbed her eyes. She’d forgotten she had makeup on, which was now smudged under her eyes. On the table next to her was her half-empty bourbon glass. A blue light could be seen coming from the inside of the coffin.
Fear struck her heart. Her first impulse was to run. But it was her second sense, one of curiosity, that won her over. Before her fight or flight kicked in, the squeak of heavy wood upon rusted hinges froze her in place. The wider the coffin opened, the lighter it emanated from the room.
This can’t be happening. I must be dreaming.
She inched herself over to the bright blue light when the coffin opened. Inside, it only extended to the sides of it. But in the middle, a dark hole spiraled downward. What the hell? Melanie couldn’t decipher if she was sleeping or wide awake.
Not one to back down from a challenge, she pushed the ottoman to the side of the box, grabbed onto the edge, and placed her legs inside. I feel like Alice in Wonderland heading down the proverbial rabbit hole. She held her breath and ventured through the open space.
A blast of cool air swept over her face. Her nostrils detect the musty smell of dirt. The hair on her arms stood straight up. The darkness scared her, or maybe it was what waited for her down below. She put her phone on flashlight mode. What she saw as she climbed further down the staircase surprised her.
There were hundreds upon hundreds of leather-bound books encased in plexiglass. When her feet hit bottom, she walked over to the enclosures. The hinges were rusty. And there were no locks on the makeshift doors. Uncle Jack affixed a temperature gauge to the face of the enclosure for easy reading. Seventy degrees and holding.
Grabbing one book, she opened it to find an original edition of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Next to that was The Hobbit, another original edition by J. R. R. Tolkien. Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, Agatha Christie, Zora Hurston, Dalton Trumbo, and Ernest Hemingway were a few she saw as she raced the flashlight over the titles.
Melanie couldn’t believe the treasure she had found as she continued to peruse the bookshelves. These books were missing from the world. But how did Uncle Jack acquire them?
She then realized the artwork hung throughout the Victorian house may not be copied after all. Climbing back up the stairwell, she hoisted herself out of the coffin. No longer frightened but excited, she rushed to the alcove in the library. There were ten works of various portraits grouped close to each other.
Melanie raced to her car and retrieved her laptop. Once connected, she googled ‘ten examples of paintings stolen from the Nazis still missing now.’ The screen began loading artwork that looked way too familiar. Her jaw dropped to her chest.
Her hands shook as she dialed the lawyer’s number.
“When you told me to be careful, what did you mean?”
He paused before he answered, “I take it you found something?”
“I did, but I’m puzzled. How? Where? What was my Uncle Jack?” she stammered.
“Few people knew the real Jack Dempsey. He was part of a special task force called the Monument Men. Their assignment was to gather up all the stolen art and novels the Nazis lifted from the world.”
“But why does he have them in his house?”
“The brothers in his unit made a pact. Each man seized publications and portraits and protected them from the greed of governments. As each one passed away, the others inherited their collection. Your uncle was the last of them. He has now designated that job to you.”
Melanie didn’t know what to say.
“Is there anything else you aren’t telling me?” she pleaded.
“Did you find the skeleton?” he inquired.
“A skeleton? No!” she exclaimed.
“Many years ago, when your uncle hired me to be his lawyer, he confided about what he and his men did in Berlin once they won the war. They happened upon a hidden bunker far east of the city. Allied forces fought in the west, and the Soviet army was five days out. Hitler and his wife had committed suicide before the Russians found them. Hitler, afraid the Allied forces would mutilate his body like they had done to Mussolini in Italy, gave orders for their bodies to be burned.”
“Your uncle and his buddies decided he got off too easily and deserved to be punished for all the horrible atrocities he performed. They took Hitler’s remains and smuggled them home in a wooden footlocker.”
“So, you’re telling me Hitler’s body is in my uncle’s house?”
“Well, your house, to be more precise.”
“Are you going to tell me where?”
“I believe he said next to Jimmy Hoffa’s.”
* * * * *
Melanie awoke with a start. She saw a bluish light coming from the coffin in the middle of the room.
This time, she fled.