The next morning Maskelyne was in his office pretending to look over the month’s financials while compiling a list of possible suspects. The list was chiefly descriptive, as Maskelyne had no idea of any of his suspects’ names. There was the butcher boy and the son of one of the servants across the street—the gardener’s child? There were the two brothers down the block, though he was fairly sure that one was scarcely out of his pram and the other had recently headed to college. There was the boy who sometimes lived with the two girls three doors down—a cousin perhaps?—though he seemed to be present only during the summer months.
He had much research to do. He’d never bothered to learn the names or relationships of any of his younger neighbors, let alone any of the assorted guttersnipes who roamed the nearby streets. Frankly he’d never had a reason for noting their individual qualities.
His musings were interrupted by a tepid knocking at his door—the door which was wide open. Maskelyne’s staff knew their master’s temper well, and treaded softly even while trying to get his attention.
The grease-stained yet pallid figure who stood at the doorway of his office was Mirch, his chief automaton craftsman. Mirch was obedient and observant if not particularly bright, and his exalted position meant that more often than not he was charged with bringing bad news. Maskelyne swiveled in his chair to regard him.
“I’m afraid I have some unpleasant information, sir, the nature of which is serious enough to warrant my appearance in this office at this time so as to provide you with full details of said information, despite the fact that seeing as it is unpleasant information it is not information that you will probably want to hear in detail.”
Mirch routinely wrapped bad news in this sort of fulsome speech like a cherry round a pit. Maskelyne nodded for him to continue.
“It seems sir that the Egyptian Fortune Teller is in serious need of a repair.”
“What’s wrong with it?”
Mirch shifted feet uneasily. “Perhaps I could speak as to the probable cause and potential solutions that I have been considering as we proceed from here to the automaton in question, that is if you could spare a few minutes for such an examination.” Maskelyne sighed and rose.
One of Maskelyne’s first masterpieces, The Egyptian Fortune Teller sat in a glass booth that greeted patrons in the lobby. When a coin was fed into the slot, it would not only cast hieroglyphic runes, but its sonorous voice would divine the meaning of the fortune, and dispense a small piece of rolled papyrus with a short prayer taken from the Book of the Dead. It was a popular attraction and there was practically always a queue of eager querents gathered for a fortune.
Though his skill had advanced far beyond its craftsmanship, Maskelyne retained a fondness for the swarthy automaton. The voice of the oracle was his own, recorded over several days on wax cylinders. In some small nearly sentimental corner of his heart he was truly proud of the Fortune Teller, not just the clockwork movements but the ingenuity, the philosophy that he had put into it. It reminded him of his youthful ambition, which is a very different sort of ambition than the one of a middle-aged master of his craft.
As they reached the lobby Mirch was still explaining. “Was Wiggins saw it first sir, noticed that the queue to see the Egyptian was getting awfully long, at which point a small child came up and tugged at his coat until he asked the urchin what was the matter. Any road, it turns out that some unknown child, not we must assume the child speaking to Wiggins, had stuffed several caramels above, under and through the coin slot of the machine. Frankly sir seeing the resulting sugary muck, and please do excuse my strong language sir, I half-believe that the child must have had access to some sort of crucible and an independent heat source to melt the sweets and create the situation what you are about to see.”
The automaton stood just off the foyer to the street and slightly to the left of the life-sized portrait of Maskelyne himself, painted just three years ago following his triumphant return from his world tour. Ordinarily the Fortuneteller’s eyes glowed with an eerie green light, but now the right eye blazed bright emerald while the left was completely dark, and the mechanical arm that picked up and tossed the hieroglyphic runes was twitching and tapping the glass in a spasmodic fashion.
Maskelyne gave the hatch cover a clever twist and it came open. He looked into the innards of his creation and saw that the melted caramels had left a wet brown river down from the coin box into the gears at three different places, and now a sticky film covered cogs, pins, and gears as deep as he could see. No doubt the entire mechanism would now have to be replaced—a mechanism for which he had no schematic other than his own memory.
Maskelyne rose to his feet. He stared in the face of his crippled creation as its fingers continued to tap erratically at the glass. “Mirch.”
“Shut him down, pack him up, and deliver it to my home workshop this afternoon. I will leave for home now to prepare for it, and so you will chair the meeting of the Theatre Staff at 4:40.”
“Make sure to tell the stage manager that I expect a full show report on my desk tomorrow morning.”
Maskelyne began to cross the lobby back to the stairs to his office. “Oh, and Mirch?”
“Tell the Theatre confectioners that their services are no longer required. Prepare them each a final pay packet. We shall have no more sweets of any sort for sale in the lobby, in the theatre, or anywhere near our premises.” And with that he was out of the room, leaving the unfortunate Mirch to his tasks.