Thursday, April 15, 2021

Puzzle Box by Bob Carlton

“The old man was practically inconsolable.” 
 As usual, Detective Bump Guidry began his tale in medias res, though by now this lack of preamble no longer bothered the bartender, Mabel. As she saw it, ferreting out the necessary prefatory material was her contribution to the investigative process, helping Bump reconsider, rearrange, and reimagine his materials.
“The old man being...” prodded Mabel.
“Percy Gladstone,” Bump replied. He stared absently at the row of bottles behind the bar and took a long, leisurely sip of his drink. Mabel waited for him to expand on this with what she believed to be an appropriate level of patience, after which whatever gene controls a low level of good-natured exasperation was activated.
“And...?”
“Burglary,” Bump finally responded. “Had some kind of fancy knick-knack stolen from him last night.”
“And what was this little trinket that got thefted?” Mabel asked.
Bump shrugged, as if he did not himself understand what all the fuss was about. “Not sure what you would call this thing. So far as anyone knows, it’s the only one of its kind in existence. Way Chester explained it to me, little do-dad should be in a museum.”
At the mention of Bump’s partner, Detective Chester Ruthven, Mabel gave a dismissive snort and exaggerated eye roll.
“Hey now,” Bump said, “Chester is the smartest guy I ever met. When he imparts info to you, take that as gospel. Never known him not to know what he’s talking about.”
“Typical egghead if you ask me,” Mabel replied. “Probably filled you boys in on all the particulars of whatever this thing is, everybody ooh-ing and ahh-ing at how brilliant he is. The famous crime fighter Chester Ruthven. I still say he can’t hold a candle to you and me honey.”
“Mabel, you make me blush. Anyway, allow me to quote. ‘This artifact,’ Chester said, ‘is, as far as anyone knows, the only example of a secure storage box, a safe if you will, designed around 215 B.C. by Archimedes. It is, in fact, presumed to be the handiwork of the great man himself. The technology, like other feats of engineering from that time and place, is far beyond anything seen before, and really for over two thousand years since.’ ‘Amazing,’ I says to him. ‘What is something like that worth?’ ‘There is nothing else like it,’ Chester says, ‘so its worth is truly beyond measure. Only the most sophisticated felon could have pulled this off, someone with exceptional daring and skill, someone who knows he cannot possibly profit monetarily from this heinous adventure, someone who wishes only to possess the tangible light of genius in which to bask.’ ‘Unless,’ I says, ‘someone hired him to do it.’ Chester pondered that for a while, so I took the chance to view some photos of the item in question. Truth be told, it wasn’t much to look at, just a simple block of stone, marble it turns out, cut into a kind of storage box, only about six- or eight-inches square. According to Chester, what makes it so ingenious is the intricate locking mechanism. No key, no visible exterior lock, just a bizarre combination of slides and levers that apparently only a handful of people have ever been able to figure out. Must be quite the wonder, because Chester would get this misty look in his eyes whenever he talked about it, and every mention had old man Gladstone weeping anew.”
“Any interesting particulars on the break-in itself?” Mabel asked.
“Ah,” said Bump, setting his glass on the bar just in time to catch the ice Mabel was dropping into the spot she knew it would be. “This is where Chester reinforces his theory of the master thief. No break-in at all. Nothing. Doors still locked, windows secure. Theft occurred sometime when the last servants went to bed around midnight and when Gladstone got up this morning around six. Item was in plain view on a mantle over the fireplace in the den.”
“So, what do you think?” Mabel asked. “I mean, I know you’re no genius like your partner or anything, but are you buying the whole suave, sophisticated Cary Grant-like cat burglar thing? I mean, it’s not as if the servants didn’t have means and opportunity as well.”
Bump winced, as if it pained him to entertain possible objections to the theories of his famous partner. “To be honest, it does sound a little thin to me. I got the impression that maybe Gladstone didn’t really inspire a lot of loyalty in the domestic help. Nothing I can put my finger on, mind you, nothing definite or provable, but I could imagine one of those mutts swiping the silver to pay a debt.”
“Got a guy with a gambling problem, maybe?” Mable asked.
“Geoffrey Birkenau. The cook. A chef, actually. Likes the ponies but they don’t like him. Turns to high stakes poker when the chips are down, and his chips are always down.”
Mabel pursed her lips, apparently bothered by an obvious objection to her own insight.
“Problem, darlin’?” Bump asked.
“OK. So, this cook...”
“Chef, actually.”
“Yeah, yeah...quit interrupting. This chef, he needs money, let’s say a lot of money. Gladstone has maybe bailed him out in the past, but no more. This time he puts his foot down. So, this cook...”
“Chef, actually.”
“...this chef, he waits until everyone is asleep, grabs the most valuable item in the house and... does what? I mean, this thing is literally priceless. He can’t sell it to anybody. No fence is going to touch this, certainly not any fence this guy knows. So why would he steal a box he can’t sell? Hell, he doesn’t even know how to open the damn thing.”
With a shout of glee that was downright boyish, Bump Guidry jumped from his barstool, spilling his drink, cupped Mabel’s cheeks in both hands, and gave her a loud kiss on the lips.
“You’re a genius!” he cried as he grabbed his coat and headed for the exit. “See you in an hour.”
Sure enough, an hour later Bump Guidry walked through the door with a stride that radiated triumph.
“Well look at you,” Mabel said as she slid a drink into his waiting hand.
“Case closed,” Bump said as he slammed his other hand down on the bar.
“Do tell,” Mabel said, pouring herself a shot of bar whiskey neat and clinking glasses with Bump.
“Everyone assumed,” Bump said, wiping his mouth on his shirt sleeve, “that the box was what the thief was after.”
Mabel’s eyes widened as she found herself reaching the same place that Bump had already landed.
“What was inside the box?”, the single question coming out in two voices. Bump continued.
“Our thief was never after the box at all. He simply assumed that anything that secure must hold something very valuable indeed. And so it did. Turns out, Percy Gladstone had a son who died some years back. Nine years old. Everyone says the boy was the center of the old man’s universe. Percy Gladstone wasn’t weeping over the loss of his precious artifact. What he valued more than anything in the world, the ashes of his son, were what he kept safely locked away in Archimedes’ wonderful strongbox. Me and the boys just went by Geoffrey Birkenau’s apartment. Found a few traces of marble dust on a claw hammer under his kitchen sink. You can probably guess what we dumped out of his vacuum cleaner bag.”


© Bob Carlton

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