In which Dodger ponders the ponderous
Wrestling the huge thing from the cubbyhole was a challenge, to say the least. It became obvious to Dodger as they worked that the thing wasn’t put into the cubby all in one piece, yet he didn’t want to take it apart for fear of breaking something. The contraption wasn’t much bigger than the opening, but it was ungainly and took a world of manipulation before it finally slid free. The three lawmen stepped away to catch their collective breaths, while the banker decided to rejoin the action now that the heavy work was done.
“That was in my bank?” Biddlesworth asked, with a heavy emphasis on both ‘that’ and ‘my.’
“Yes, sir,” Dodger said.
“But how? I supervised the entire construction, from the first brick to the last nail. I didn’t request that hole in the wall or this blasted thing!”
“Well, sir, I think you’ll find that ‘that hole,’ as you call it, isn’t part of the bank itself. I would wager it is built into the back of the vault. A false back, as it were. For a vault, I should remind you, that you had shipped in from somewhere else.”
This seemed to calm the banker somewhat. “I see.”
“But surely this thing didn’t come with the vault,” the deputy said. “It’s so fragile.”
“True,” the sheriff said. “If they had hauled that thing all the way here inside that lead box, it would’ve been smashed to pieces from rattling around.”
Dodger had given that some thought too. “I don’t think it was shipped together, at least not one inside the other. My guess is that the contraption was installed piece by piece. Maybe even over a few weeks. Or months. By someone who knew what he was doing. Someone who knew the cubby was there. Someone who had access to the bank, alone, every day.”
All eyes turned to the banker.
“And here we are again,” Biddlesworth said. “You know, I find it amusing that my assistant goes missing and the only man in town who was supposedly awake at the time claims not to have seen a fool thing. Yet everyone thinks my lad is at fault.”
“You must admit, Mr. Biddlesworth,” Dodger said. “It does seem rather convenient.”
“And just how could William have left here with thirty thousand dollars and not be seen? How could he have yanked the very shelves themselves off the walls and no one heard it? What I really want to know is why no one suspects him?” The banker thrust an accusing finger at the deputy. “You want convenient, there’s your convenience. He roams this town all by himself every single night. He has keys to all the buildings. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had the combination to the vault!”
“What are you getting at?” the sheriff asked.
“You know what I’m getting at.”
“Then why don’t you just come on out and say it!”
“Fine! I think your man there stole the money. And furthermore, I think he kidnapped my assistant in the process, to make William look guilty!”
“I didn’t do anything,” Deputy Duncan said.
“Of course you didn’t!” the banker shouted. “You never do anything. Because actually doing your job would interfere with your drunken carousing!”
Once more, the sheriff and Biddlesworth fell into a heated argument, all while the deputy hung his head and listened in shame. It was rather like a couple of parents fighting in front of their son.
“Quiet!” Dodger shouted over the men.
The arguing pair wound down into mutual muttered bickering.
“Mr. Biddlesworth has a point,” Dodger said.
“Now you see here,” the sheriff started.
“No. You see. All of you see. This bickering isn’t helping any. And it doesn’t matter who we blame for what, because there is still one glaring question that everyone seems to be forgetting.”
“What?” the banker and sheriff asked together in a huff.
“What in the hell is this thing?” Deputy Duncan asked as he crouched in front of the odd device.
“Exactly,” Dodger said. (Duncan might have been the town drunk, but he seemed far more levelheaded than the other men.) Dodger joined him in his inspection, curious as to what the machine could be.
At the bottom lay a spider web pattern of metal slats, interlocked to form a set of legs on which the body of the machine perched. The bulk was a complicated looping of wires and metal, wood and glass, and all manner of things Dodger wasn’t sure he could identify if he wanted to. At one end, it bore a muzzle about the width of Dodger’s wrist, wrapped all around with think copper coils. At the other end there rested the distinct makings of a trigger. A gap of about three or four inches lay between the two ends, leaving a deep recess in the belly of the machine. Or was it a weapon?
“Looks like a gun of some kind,” Deputy Duncan said as if reading Dodger’s mind.
“It could be,” Dodger said. “Shame, though. It’s the only piece of real evidence we have, and we don’t even know what it does.”
“It reduces things,” Professor Dittmeyer said.
All of the men spun in place to find the professor standing behind them, accompanied by the driver.
Of course Dodger had heard the bank doors open and close, and smelled the oncoming funk of Ched, so the appearance of the men was no surprise for him. Yet the professor’s garb was a surprise indeed. Gone were the workaday lab clothes, replaced instead by a gray silk suit complete with bowler hat and ebony walking stick. He even wore matching gray gloves. (When did he have time to dress so fancy? Ched had only been gone twenty minutes at the most.) The man cut a fine figure, but still, Dodger couldn’t help but find it a bit amusing. He repressed his chuckle, however, being of the opinion that perhaps laughing openly at your employer in front of others wasn’t such a good idea.
“Who are you?” Biddlesworth asked, returning to his usual snobby tone.
“I’m Professor Hieronymus J. Dittmeyer,” the doc said, doffing his hat to the men as he raised his cane to the contraption behind them. “And that, my good sir, is a reduction machine.”
“Come again?” Dodger asked.
“A reduction machine,” the professor repeated. He stripped off his gloves and tossed them into his hat. Pushing the hat into the banker’s hands, the doc made his way past the men to get a closer look at his quarry. “And quite an extraordinary beauty it is too. Would you look at that? What a lovely piece of engineering. A bit rough around the edges, true, but a fine prototype, to be sure.”
“What does it do?” the sheriff asked.
“Do?” The doc gave Sheriff Stanley a blank look, blinking in his classic Morse code of confusion. “I thought it was obvious. What part of reduction machine do you not comprehend?”
“Well, sir, I get the reduction part, and I understand what you mean by machine, but I don’t think I have ever heard them used together in such a manner. How does it work?”
“Well, it shrinks things.”
“Shrink things?” Biddlesworth asked.
“Yes,” the doc said. “Reduces them.”
“Yes, makes them smaller.”
“Makes them smaller?”
“Oh my.” Professor Dittmeyer cupped his hand around the shell of his ear, as if trying to home in to some distant noise.
“Oh my?” Biddlesworth asked with uncertainty
“Yes, that’s quite an echo your bank has. You might want to invest in some soundproofing insulation. I can give you a good rate on it if you like.”
“Professor, sir,” Dodger said. “I think we all need a more detailed explanation of the machine’s function. If you don’t mind.”
“Why didn’t you just say so?” The professor thought about this a moment, then asked, “How simple of an explanation must it be?”
“Simple enough for Ched to understand it.”
The professor all but wilted at the prospect. “I don’t think I have that much time.”
“Hey!” Ched said. “I’m probably the only on here that getsh the gisht of what thish fanshy-pantsh masheen can do.”
“Excellent!” the professor shouted. “Then you explain it to them.”
Ched puffed his cheeks. He shifted his weight from one foot to the next. He rubbed his chin, put his hands in his pockets, then shifted his weight back to the other foot. The free foot began to tap, ever so slightly.
“Well?” the doc asked.
“I’m thinking on it,” Ched said.
“For Odin’s sake, if we wait on you to think about it, then it’ll be next year before these gentlemen are any wiser.”
“Sir?” Dodger asked. “If you can try for us. Please?”
(Click forward to continue)