I glanced down at the brochure as the guide led us through the narrow, twisted corridors. We stopped every so often at rooms with special features, such as antique furniture, historic paintings, et cetera. I tried to mask my impatience, for it had been half an hour since the group had started the tour, and we seemed no closer to the center of the house. It was there, in the middle of the octagonal building, that the purpose for my visit lay. The legendary Black Diamond, my only object, was kept there.
According to the guide, the entire building had been built for the sole purpose of housing the Black Diamond. Its owner had acquired the jewel through questionable channels and suffered a nervous breakdown a few years before his death, a state from which he had never truly recovered. In his frenzied moments he had dreamed up the plan for this house, now commonly referred to as “The Maze,” and hired the builders. They had followed the plans without deviation and completed the bizarre structure in three years. Unfortunately, the day after its completion, the owner jumped out of the topmost window and fell to his death. His family then donated the house, as well as all of its contents, to the city, which preserved it as a museum.
The guide stopped at yet another room, this time to show us the intricate stained-glass windows. I noticed that these, and the rest of the windows we had seen so far, were unopenable and almost unbreakable, for they were reinforced with sturdy iron bars. Only a blowtorch would cut through them.
I had inspected the lock on the door also, for professional reasons. The bolt was strong but simple to pick. It would be much easier to break in through the door, especially since there was no sign of an alarm system. I thought that odd but was not about to complain. Slowly, the tour moved along.
We walked single file, since in some places the halls were only three feet wide. The ceilings also grew higher and lower randomly, and odd steps were interspersed along the way — five steps up, three steps down, then one step up again. I couldn’t resist asking the guide if there were a map of the house, but she replied that they hadn’t been able to put one together since the house had no definable floors.
Finally, the guide stopped before the door of what she called the “heart” of the house. As we entered, a hush fell over the other tourists, who had been oo-ing and ah-ing and making inane comments thus far. I was towards the back of the group, but as I entered I understood their silent reaction. The rooms and corridors had grown progressively smaller as we wound our way into the structure; here, however, the ceiling soared upwards like a cathedral, and the room seemed as wide as the house itself. It was eight-sided, just like the house’s exterior, and must have taken up most of the space on its level. But instead of spreading out to stretch our cramped limbs, we clustered near the doorway, our eyes focused on the glittering gem in the center.
From the windows far above, the midday sun was directed to the object on the pedestal. In a simple glass case, also octagonal, it sat regally as though it ruled the house and we were merely its servants. The light reflected from the diamond was undimmed, but the jewel itself swirled with smoky shadows, deepening to jet-black in places. If you stared at it too long, it looked as though the striations were moving, writhing and coiling like a serpent. We were all spellbound until the guide started speaking again.
She mentioned the rarity of black diamonds, since usually their color indicates impurities that weaken the structure. This one, however, had been tested to prove its hardness and had passed with “flying colors,” as she put it. When she gave an estimate of its market worth, most people gasped.
“Has it ever been stolen?” an elderly gentleman asked. I was glad he did, since I had wanted to ask that very question. The guide said no, it had never actually been stolen. The man then asked if there had been attempts to steal it. The guide answered that officially, there were none, but unofficially, there seemed to have been a great many.
The man would have let the subject end at that, but I could not resist inquiring as to why the attempts were not admitted officially. “Well, sir,” the guide replied, “it’s the oddest thing, but the police couldn’t call them attempted burglaries since none of the items in the house had been taken, or even moved.” I wondered at that, but assumed that the would-be burglars had never managed to gain entry. Perhaps that lock was more difficult to pick than I had estimated. The guide took us back to the entrance and ended the tour.
I re-examined the lock upon my departure and came to the same conclusion. I could not fathom how any self-respecting burglar had failed to get past that lock, but then, perhaps they had tried to get in the hard way — through the windows. I, on the other hand, foresaw no difficulty in obtaining the Black Diamond.
In case you are still wondering, yes, I am a burglar. A thief, a robber, a swindler, whatever you choose to call me. But I work just as hard at my profession as anybody else at theirs. It takes a lot of skill, patience, and persistence to become rich as a burglar. I have, and I have no qualms in saying that I am the best in my field — namely, gems and jewelry. I also have the connections which allow me to sell the items I steal, without which my endeavors would be pointless.
That night, after leisurely enjoying dinner at the hotel, albeit with the rest of my tour group, I retired at the usual time. Then, around eleven o’clock, I set out secretly with the tools of my trade. As I had assumed, the lock on the front door soon opened under my experienced hands.
I have another endowment in my favor: I have a precise, photographic memory. I had not only memorized the sequence of turns and ascents to get to the center room, but I also knew how each hallway, each landing, should look. It was only a matter of minutes to get there this second time, especially since I did not stop to admire the view at every bend.
There it was. Even at night, what light there was from the moon and stars were focused on the jewel, glancing off in eerie, bluish rays. The Black Diamond itself seemed to glow with ethereal iridescence. My eyes were playing tricks on me again, making me think, for a moment, that the stone’s swirling colors were shifting. Undaunted, I shook my head to clear it of the illusion and gave my full attention to the glass case that housed it.
Here again was a surprise, for I had expected at least a wired alarm system. Usually, for a piece of such value, the entire room would be protected by lasers, so their absence had come as my first surprise. But the octagonal glass case seemed to be just that and nothing more. I wondered if it had pressure-sensitive sensors at its base, but the velvet pedestal it sat upon showed no signs of such technology. I took a deep breath and decided to take the risk. I quickly removed the glass.
I had fully expected to be deafened by alarms, so the ensuing quiet was rather unnerving. In it I could hear the house creaking and moaning in the wind, its sighs sounding uncannily human, sending shivers up my spine. And yet, when I looked down upon my new acquisition, all my qualms were dispersed in the exultation of triumph. I boldly picked up the Black Diamond.
Its shape was a simple octagonal step-cut, much like the brilliant cut but with fewer facets in order to showcase the gem’s unusual color. Seen from directly above, it was a perfect octagon and also perfectly black. I carefully placed it in a hidden, inside pocket of my coat. With one last look around, I confirmed that there were no hidden cameras and replaced the glass case before I left the room.
I stepped out into the corridor and confidently wound my way down to the exit. I almost felt like whistling. This was an easy job. If all of my jobs were this easy, I would have been able to retire by now. As it was, the price of this gem was going to pay for my living expenses for the next five years, at least. I nearly danced down a set of stairs.
Then I stopped, petrified. I had subconsciously counted the steps as I descended. I turned around to check. There were four of them. And I knew, as plain as day, that I had not come across a set of four steps with the tour. It should have been five steps, right there. Had I miscounted, both on my way in and my way out? It seemed unlikely. And I had turned the corners correctly, I knew. I shook my head in somewhat of a melancholy mood. I must be getting old, I thought, to have miscounted the steps. But I had made a point of remembering the turns, so I wasn’t concerned in that regard. I continued my descent.
Suddenly, I came to a landing I could not recognize. At each staircase of any length, there were ornate railings, each with a uniquely carved pattern. This one was new to me. Its square posts were plain, and the rail itself, though made of wood as all the others, felt more rounded. I had to admit that I was lost.
It’s bad enough to be disoriented. It’s worse to become disoriented when you have been confident of your sense of direction all your life. But it’s the worst possible condition to be in when you are a burglar in a house you have just burgled.
However, I was not about to panic. I would simply retrace my steps back to the center room and try again. I must have missed a turn, or gone down the wrong branch, or not seen the right corridor. With such narrow halls and only my small flashlight to illuminate them, it was quite probable. I turned back, trying to follow my recent visual memory to the center room again.
I came to the corridor that curved around the center room and relaxed a little. I would clear my mind and start all over again. In such an odd house, appropriately nicknamed “The Maze,” nobody could be faulted for losing his way. I rounded a corner, already preparing to turn around and try again. The door to the center room should have been there. It wasn’t.
I stood there, startled, for a moment. Then I thought that perhaps the door was around the next bend and that this had been my mistake when I had first left the room. I walked past the next corner. The door was not there.
One further. Still no door. The next corner. No door. Another. Nothing. Yet another. Only a blank wall, staring back at me. I went past the next two corners and still found no trace of the door. However, around the last bend, I came face-to-face with a dead end. Since I had also counted eight corridors, I figured that I had completely circled the room. Perhaps the door was hidden, I thought, so I retraced my steps, knocking on the walls with my fist to detect it. Still, I found nothing.
I was puzzled, but then I realized that the door was not so important — to find the exit from this house was. I had left the lock on the front door, hanging as it had been but not locked (of course), so if some overzealous policeman noticed it, I could still be caught in the act. I hurried my steps, trying to remember the turns I had taken with the guide. Although I could not recognize anything, I told myself that the dim lighting was playing tricks on my eyes and continued my way down.
I thought I would recognize the ground level, at least, since it had contained the most rooms and the most doors. However, the longer I walked, the fewer doors I passed. After a while, I found myself in a section of the house that had no doors. I reassured myself that I would soon come to the more crowded area, that I would soon be walking outside in the cool night air. The house was musty and smelled of mildew, which was not surprising, considering its lack of ventilation. As I had observed earlier, its windows were not designed to open.
I turned one corner, then another, then another, until I was afraid I would lose count, when suddenly, my path was barred by a wall. I don’t mind admitting that I was rather frustrated. My stomach was churning angrily as I walked back the way I had come. How many dead ends did this accursed house have?
But I quickly realized that there must be a great many. Almost every way I went, I ran into a dead end. Soon I was picking my way randomly, giving up any pretense of following my memory. I had found out, quite obviously and to my great distress, how poorly it had served me.
The problem with walking aimlessly about, though, especially in a maze, is that you can never be sure whether you have gone that way before or not. I became quite convinced that if I were not running into the same dead end every time, that all of the dead ends had been made to look the same — even to the grain of the wood. Finally, out of curiosity, I took a small screw out of a pocket (I always keep such things on my person, since I never know when an odd screw or bolt will come in handy, in my line of business) and placed it on the floor in front of the dead end. Then I ran down the corridors with abandon. The next five times, I came to the same dead end, although I had taken a different route away from it each time.
Panting hard from my exertions, I tried to clear my head enough to think. It took all of my self-discipline to hold back the rising tide of panic. The house was cleverly built, I thought. There must be only one way to get to the entrance, and all the other ways had been built to lead back to here. I simply have to try all the alternate routes until I find the entrance.
I started away from the dead end again, this time more methodically. I started by taking every branch to the right, counting the turns it took to get back to the dead end, then turning left at the last one, then the one before it, progressively until I would end up taking every branch to the left. I worked this way for at least two hours and finally thought I had tried every possible route. I still ended up back at the same spot.
I was exhausted from walking and running. I tried to think if I had overlooked any alternate routes but could think of none. I am nothing if not thorough. The world, or the world I could see, began to spin, and the roiling tumult churning in my stomach finally broke loose, releasing itself in a long, wailing scream. I could not stop it. Then I began to run wildly through the house again.
The narrow corridors seemed to close in on me from every side, and the ceiling joined forces with it. I was trapped, being buried alive, squeezed to death by this abominable building. The house seemed not so much a construction of wood and metal as a malevolent entity bent on causing my destruction. I fell, then flailed my arms at my unseen tormentor, the feeble beams of my flashlight like an extension of my soul — trying to find some crack, some pinhole through which to escape.
I continued to run, screaming, heedless of how many times I tripped or fell. Every last shred of logic had abandoned me, leaving me with only an animalistic instinct to try to escape. To run, run, run from the evil that pursued me. I ran around a corner and slammed into the dead end.
To my surprise and relief, the wall of the dead end fell over, revealing an even narrower corridor with a steep staircase leading up. I scrambled up the steps, sobbing hysterically. At the top of the stairs I came to a door, which was unlocked. Behind it was a small room, with only one skylight window and an antique chest-of-drawers. I felt a cool breeze and saw with joy that the window in the ceiling was open, though just a crack. I scrabbled at the drawers in the chest, its peeling paint catching under my fingernails, and used the partially opened drawers as steps to climb my way to the top of the dresser. Then, shoving with all my might, I was able to open the window further, gulping in draughts of fresh air. I heaved myself through the small opening, kicking the dresser over but escaping to the roof, which suddenly seemed to lurch, sliding out from under my feet…
The next day, a tourist’s dead body was found on the street. The police called it a suicide, since everything in the house was intact, and the Black Diamond lay undisturbed in its glass case.