Monday, May 14, 2012

The Boyproof Watch III


Maskelyne did not believe in the spirits of the dead. He was also a man of fearsome aspect, and to tell the truth was as dangerous as he looked. His elegant clothes concealed an assortment of subtle but effective weapons. Under his hat brim was a rounded razor, his shoes produced spikes with a heel click, and his walking stick was armed at both tip and handle. There were no less than three small pistols on him at any time, though only two could be found in a casual search of his person. So when he rose from his worktable he was unhurried and deliberate.

He walked down the side of the stairs to avoid creaks and into the hall next to the study, where a large teak cabinet stood. It was from here that the bell was steadily pealing. He opened the cabinet doors to reveal a detailed map of his house, with all three floors and the basement outlined in copper wire.

This device, the Auto-Electro Domicile Perimeter Monitor, had been a commission for the Premier of Canada, but Maskelyne had installed the prototype in his own home. The copper wire surrounding the outline of the house glowed a dull red in one area, showing a breach of the perimeter down at a bank of basement windows.

Maskelyne stared intently at the map. Whoever it might be, they had exhibited both skill and courage in climbing over the spiked iron fence and passing through the mechanical guards stationed around the grounds. Anything larger than a squirrel or crow that entered his estate was set upon without warning, and anything slower than a cat would almost certainly be killed. (And indeed, he had found shreds of fur and bone scattered about his garden in the past. The neighborhood felines had learned that there was nothing but chase and fear within those dark gates.)

Usually when he descended to the basement workshop it was via the stairs in the kitchen. But his ingenuity and caution had led Maskelyne to include hidden paths throughout his home, so instead he walked down the hallway and took a right to enter the library. On the way he passed several automatons that sat, hung or stood motionless. Several of these could be activated for protective measures, but for the moment, not knowing the identity or attributes of his intruder, he preferred to have nothing moving in his house except for himself and his uninvited visitor.

In the library he crossed to the middle of the six tall bookcases which curved round the spherical room. Well aware of the cliché of bookcases that revolved or slid aside to reveal a hidden door, he had decided, for his amusement as much as for security, on a different construction. He grabbed the middle shelves hard and yanked upward, and the entire bookcase slid with counterbalanced ease into the ceiling, revealing a dark doorway. He struck his stick sharply on the ground and the handle burst into a white-hot flame, an excellent source of illumination and a formidable weapon.

He walked down the steps, and when he reached the blank wall one floor down his fingers deftly found the small hidden catch. With a light groan the doorway slid open (must make sure that’s oiled, he thought to himself) and he was in the dark basement, now lit by his brightly-burning walking stick.

The basement was vast. When Maskelyne had met with his architect, his original instructions had been for a basement and sub-basement, seeing as he was a man with many projects and even more secrets. Instead the architect had persuaded him to invest in a single particularly deep cellar dug past the walls of the building above, so the workmen had excavated under a portion of his back lawn. That half of the basement was doubly supported by sturdy if ugly hardwood posts. Arranged in orderly rows throughout the single large room were tables on which rested automatons in various stages of building and repair, each covered with a thick white sheet to protect them from dust.

 To someone of even moderate imagination it resembled a morgue, but Maskelyne had practically no imagination at all.

He made his way over to the bank of windows that had been indicated on the Auto-electro Domicile Perimeter Monitor, outwardly casual but alert as an owl. He held the stick up, and saw in its brilliant white light an open window above, its latch hanging. The window was low and narrow, made even less accessible by two thick iron bars. It would take a flexible frame indeed to wriggle through such a small opening.

He stepped back and held the light to look across the room. There was no motion, no sound. As he slowly moved the stick the unvarying white flame shuffled the shadows of the sheets on the tables, and he saw that on one of them the sheet was lying unevenly. It was not in his nature to leave anything uneven, so he crossed to it and in one motion grabbed a corner and threw it back.

Underneath was the automaton that he had left there, a mechanical stoop and pavement scrubber that Maskelyne had not yet managed to cure of a tendency to also ferociously scrub any small domestic animals it met. Roughly the size of a barrel hoop and only twice as thick, the scrubber’s differential equation center, a panel on the left side of its hood, had been open for the inventor’s tinkering. He now saw that the panel was closed.

He opened the panel. Inside he saw that his most recent work had been completely undone. Wires, gears and cogs that he’d painstakingly rearranged after the scrubber’s recent encounter with a beloved Pomeranian had been shifted by an unknown hand. He was even fairly certain that several components were missing.

He swung around, stick raised and ready, his face reddening. The contracts that he had potential clients sign always included a lengthy clause regarding penalties for unauthorized tinkering with his creations. Maskelyne guarded his art as an eagle guards its eggs, and once his work was ready to leave his shop the maintenance panels were welded shut. Whoever had been here had been poking his fingers into the proprietary genius of a very dangerous man.

There was no motion, no sound. Maskelyne turned his light on the ground next to the table. A recent incident with a patented Articulated Chimney Serpent had left traces of soot on sections of the floor that had not yet been cleaned. He saw footprints leading from the table to the floor under the window—prints coming and going, suggesting that the intruder had entered from the window, and had already escaped via the same route.

The evidence of those small footprints was conclusive. Maskelyne’s intruder was his natural nemesis: a boy.

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